The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Book Review)

from: Biography - November 2000

by Jennifer Gilmore

When Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her London apartment in 1963, her two young children asleep in the next room, she left behind a poetry collection and volumes of journals and letters that established her as a writer of extraordinary talents and a women's cause celebre. Published posthumously by her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, who left Plath of another women shortly before he death, her journals were heavily edited and did not include the final volume, which was burned by Hughes. Now the unedited journals have been released and it turns out that what was left out was not the expected bad bits about Hughes, but Plath's daily battle with her own inner demons.

The Journals shows the transformation from precocious Smith College student to feminist artist struggling with women's deferential and dependent roles in society. After college, Plath attended Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship, where she met Hughes. The two were married in 1956 and moved back to Massachusetts, so Plath could teach at her alma mater. She was fiercely dependent on her husband and had a history of relying on men for self-worth--perhaps due to her father's death when she was 8. One can see why Hughes' departure had disastrous effects.

But it is the silence in The Journals that is the most intriguing. Plath's college suicide attempt is never mentioned, only later alluded to, as is her courtship with Hughes. She offers the reader, instead, tremendous insight into the writer's process. In March of 1958, she wrote, "My life is a discipline, a prison: I live for my own work, without which I am nothing."

Ultimately, the uncensored journals show Plath to be a complex woman weighed down by domestic duties, not the crazy, man-hating poetess she is often portrayed as. But that last burned volume is irretrievable. Without it, the journals stop abruptly in London in 1962, seven months before her death. Sadly, all we have are Plath's late poems to understand what was going on in the last chapter of her life.

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