Book reviews - The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

from: Chicago Review, 1995

by Wendy Kagan

Janet Malcolm. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

The biographical approach to literature has an antique aura about it these days; certain circles condemn it as unfashionable. Ever since Foucault announced "the death of the author," custodians of literary history and criticism have taken careful pains to separate the art from the life of the artist. But in the case of Sylvia Plath it would take an extraordinary muscle to pry these two entities apart; here the art and the life entwine to form one indivisible whole. A chain of biographical events--a troubled marriage, separation, and divorce; a feverish period of poetry writing; the suicide in 1963 (Plath was thirty); and the posthumous publication of Ariel two years later--lays the foundation for a grand mythologization of the poet, her life, and her work.

Plath's late poems speak in raw, emotive first-person ("I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets"),[1] and many narrate plots of domestic deception ("My ribs show. What have I eaten? / Lies and smiles").[2] Some readers interpret the tragic heroine pose of Ariel as a "confessional" conduit for autobiographical exhibition. Yet, as if the poems do not reveal enough, biographers and critics extend and elaborate the poet's story. Not only is Plath's art a kind of cultural property, but her life is too; no less than five biographies line library shelves, alongside countless memoirs and semi-biographical critical essays. The narratives grow increasingly detailed as competing researchers dig through the past for tidbits that will embellish and enliven their narratives. We now have at our fingertips play-by-play accounts of Plath's discovery of the infidelity of her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes. Reams of published text describe the separation and the divorce, the trials of single motherhood, the bouts of depression coupled with bursts of manic intensity and artistic productivity. We even know the minute details of Plath's most intimate gesture, her suicide. We see the plate of bread and mugs of milk placed by her sleeping children 's bedsides, their bedroom doors shut and sealed, the poet's head laid on the rack of an oven, the gas taps opened.

Among biographers and other legend-makers, two antithetical camps emerge: the champions of the poet, many of whom look to Plath's life as an allegory of feminist unrest and the transforming status of women in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the defenders of Ted Hughes, who maintain that the Plath myth demonizes the former husband, reduces him to the role of adulterous oppressor, and infringes upon his fight to privacy. Until recently, the supporters of Plath have been far more vocal than the defenders of Hughes. Nevertheless, participants in the debate take opposing sides; hardly any straddles the barbed fence that separates the two groups. Plath scholarship has become a team sport; loyalties are fierce, and tensions run thick.

In The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm declares herself a contender. Through a fanciful metaphor, Malcolm describes the Plath biographical enterprise as a high-stakes card game: "Like all the other players at the table, I have felt anxious and oppressed by the game. It is being played in a room so dark and gloomy that one has a hard time seeing one's hand; one is apt to make mistakes. The windows are grimy and jammed shut. The old servant's hands shake as he brings watery drinks" (4 1-2). Throughout Silent Woman, Malcolm distributes these allegorical vignettes like gifts. Such rhetorical effects are integral to the project of her book; she intends to present the Plath myth as an analogue for the problems of biography as a genre. According to Malcolm, all biography hinges upon an obsession with intimate and sensational detail. All biography boils down to team rivalry. The Plath myth is a kind of case study. It showcases the symptoms of a classic literary malady.

As a "player" in the game, Malcolm must choose a position at the table, and she does so accordingly. She claims a space for herself among Ted Hughes's defenders. She sympathizes with Plath's former husband, comparing him to Prometheus, "whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged"; for years Hughes "has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers, and newspaper journalists" (8). Malcolm campaigns admirably for the media-weary Hughes, whose story, like Plath's, is one of victimization. In the public imagination (particularly in the minds of Plath's supporters), the poet remains "young and in a rage over Hughes's unfaithfulness" (7). Hughes stands condemned. But when Malcolm begins her book with a retelling of the marital separation, she includes an element that most biographers omit--forgiveness. Imagine that Plath had not died at the peak of her Medean fury. Over the years, she would have moved peacefully toward compassion and understanding. Doesn't Hughes deserve these healing balms?

With large-hearted prose, Malcolm softens the popular image of Plath's former husband. When others have demonized him, she humanizes him. In the grave, the heroine poet lies unscathed, but Hughes remains living and vulnerable to biographers' blows. Throughout the narrative, the author's voice remains protective and forgiving. Yet Malcolm's representation of the man is realistic, not idealistic. While she pardons Hughes for his reckless love life, she does not exonerate him on all counts. She questions his contradictory behavior as editor of Plath's posthumous publications, particularly her journals. Why does he omit certain intimate details yet include others? What are the motivations behind his editorial decisions? These queries never rise to the pitch of interrogation; they remain soft-spoken, gentle probings. After all, Malcolm declares herself an ally.

Although she comes down firmly on the side of Hughes, Malcolm resists an offensive stance against Plath. Her feelings toward the poet are ambivalent, not hostile. She tends to shrink from certain aspects of Plath's strong personality (stubbornness, impertinence, impetuosity), but she celebrates the poet's creative gifts. In fact, Malcolm gives "the silent woman" a voice in her book: she quotes liberally from Plath's poems, journals, and letters. While she acknowledges Plath's tendency to be "not nice," she recognizes that this moody, intemperate passion contributes to the force of the poetry. Malcolm's subjects are not superhuman, nor are they subhuman; the foibles and faults of Plath and Hughes confirm their humanness.

Yet Silent Woman is not a biography. Rather, it is a work of meta-biography, a study of the genre. It is also a manifesto--a firm statement against traditional biography writing. Malcolm offers her vision of Plath and Hughes as a corrective, an antidote to certain slanderous volumes that masquerade as literary history. According to Malcolm, only one of the five previous biographies of Plath merits approval: Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, a fellow "player" on the Hughes defense. When it appeared in 1989, critics and Plathites slammed the book for its acidic bias against the poet. But Malcolm reads Stevenson's tone as ambivalent, not biased; clearly, she sympathizes with a sister writer whose sensibility mirrors her own. The story behind Bitter Fame fills a chapter in Silent Woman. Ultimately, Malcolm shields Stevenson under her protective wing, alongside Hughes.

Compassion for the casualties of biography and journalism extends from a veteran of similar battles. In a brief, almost incidental passage that does not appear until midway through the book, Malcolm alludes to the personal hardships that inspire her defenses of Hughes and Stevenson: "I, too, had been attacked in the press. I had been there--on the helpless side of the journalist-subject equation. Now my journalist's 'objectivity' was impaired" (70-1). The "attack" came in the wake of a recent, widely publicized lawsuit in which the charges brought against her challenged her own credibility as a writer. Jeffrey Masson, the subject of an article Malcolm wrote for The New Yorker in 1983, accused her of misquotation and misrepresentation. (A Federal jury ruled in Mr. Masson's favor but deadlocked over damages.) The muffled subtext of Silent Woman is, perhaps, the writer's own psychological journey through troubled, vulnerable times. While she investigates the ethical problems introduced by writing she also, with quiet indirection, combs through the tangle of her own internal conflicts.

When she inverts these moral standards and uses them for the purpose of her own self-exploration as a writer, one can only applaud her. Yet Malcolm goes too far when she imposes upon all other writers and readers her own fierce code of values. More often than not she exercises morality of a finger-pointing, gavel-grinding kind. She condemns the writers of biography as a corrupt species of voyeurs, gossip-mongerers, even burglars: "The biographer at work . . . is like the professional burglar, breaking into the house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away" (9). The more passionate her judiciary broadcasts became as I read them, the more I resented being made to feel as if I had committed some petty crime. For in Malcolm's eyes, both readers and writers are accomplices in the "voyeur-ism and busybodyism" of biography. Moralism can function as a rhetorical ruse; it takes verbal cunning to translate one's chosen viewpoint into ethical imperative. But I could only recoil from the neo-Victorianism of Malcolm's tone when she sermonized about the ill effects of gossip and rumor.

The suasive, oftentimes transgressive, power of gossip threatens Hughes and his team of defenders, but for Plath's admirers it sustains a huge and unshakable cultural myth. In theory, Malcolm considers herself a deconstructionist; she actively deconstructs the genre of biography when she maintains that there is not one irreducible "truth" about the life of a subject. But she does not recognize that gossip exemplifies her own philosophy. Gossip is deconstruction in motion; it is multivalent, spontaneous, and it defies the notion of authentic, originary authorship. From her moral pedestal, Malcolm regards gossip as a lower form of communication. It may prove useful, however, to investigate the power of gossip surrounding the Plath myth. How does rumor and scandal come to articulate social anxieties, hopes, and fears about the changing status of women in the latter half of the twentieth century? Why do the tenacious tales continue to proliferate? What cultural fantasies do they produce or reflect?

If Malcolm prefers moralizing to analyzing, she nevertheless produces penetrating insights about the creative process while she ponders the ethics of writing. She is at her best when she explores the agonies and pleasures of her own art; in these passages, she spins out eloquent, tapestry-like conceits. Her description of the cluttered home of Trevor Thomas (a professor who lived in the apartment beneath Plath's the winter of her death and who was, perhaps, the last person to see the poet alive) as "a metaphor for the problem of writing" arrives elegantly at epiphany: "Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accredited there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart" (204). Throughout Silent Woman, Malcolm addresses a dilemma of writing which Plath herself at first struggled against and eventually used to her advantage: the inescapable subjectivity of the author. As she chronicles her encounters with various "players" of the Plath biographical enterprise, Malcolm demonstrates that writers of biography (and, indeed, of all genres) rarely, if ever, pass beyond the perimeters of their "own vastly overfilled mind(s)" (204).

The colossal egoism of writing finds perhaps no better example than the figure of Plath herself. It is within a hyperbolic and aggrandizing lyric "I" that the Ariel poet gains her creative power. Plath exploits the tensions produced by this enormous sense of selfhood, which works alternately as a stigma and a boon. Perhaps Malcolm and Stevenson regard the poet with ambivalence because she represents an exaggerated version of themselves as writers. The will to write requires a degree of narcissism and self-promotion; when amplified, these qualities can become disturbing or off-putting. Nevertheless, both sides of the biographical debate remain riveted to the story of the poet's startling transformation in the last years of her life from domesticity to intense, prolific creativity. This tale of a woman's metamorphosis, clouded over but never entirely obscured by gossip, rumor, and fantasy, remains at the center of the Plath myth.

1. Sylvia Plath, "Elm," in Ariel (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 15.

2. Sylvia Plath, "The Jailer," in The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Hatper & Row, 1981), p. 226.


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