Sylvia Plath’s mother was the daughter of two German immigrants who lived in Massachusetts. She grew up highly educated and became a high school English teacher. Sylvia Plath’s father had a doctorate in classical languages at Boston University. When Sylvia’s mother decided to earn her Masters degree at Boston University, Otto and Riri were married after a brief courtship, January 1932, in Carson City, Nevada. By mutual agreement, the mother immediately quit her job and became a homemaker. Her first child, Sylvia, was born October 27, 1932. Sylvia’s brother Warren was born one and a half years later on April 27, 1935.
True to her word, Riri Plath was a devoted mother and wife. Otto Plath devoted himself to writing a book, so that the family had very little time for social life. Otto was also twenty years older than Riri and insisted on ruling the household with an iron hand. In fact, he even controlled the finances of the house to the degree that he insisted on doing all the shopping, groceries and otherwise. As controlling as he was, he was also a very loving and proud father and Sylvia and Warren grew up feeling loved by both parents.
However, in 1936, Otto began to get extremely sick. He refused to go to see a doctor and he continued to work through much of his illness, which the family believed to be lung cancer. Then in 1938-1939, Warren also became sick. First with pneumonia, then later with asthma and other bronchial ailments. Riri Plath exhausted her resources trying to take care of the two sick men in her family. So Sylvia was often left with her maternal grandparents, whom she was very found of. In particular, she was very close to her grandfather, who she called “grampy”. In fact, she often in later writing would speak about him as if he was really her father. The following excerpt comes from her story “Among the Bumblebees” and describes an incident that actually occurred, according to Riri, (Pg. 22) with her grandfather.
“…First father would go for a swim himself, leaving her in the shore. . . .After a while she would call to him, and he would turn and begin swimming shoreward, carving a line of foam. . . .cleaving the water ahead with the powerful propellers of his arms. He would come to her and lift her onto his back , where she clung, her arms looked around his neck, and go swimming out again. In an ecstasy of terror, she would hold to him , her soft cheek prickling where she had laid her face against the back of his neck, her legs and slender body trailing out behind her, moving effortlessly along in her father’s energetic wake.
When Otto stubbed his little toe one day, and it turned black by the end of the day, Riri insisted that he see a doctor. The doctor informed the family that Otto did not have Lung Cancer, but instead an advanced stage of Diabetes that could have been controlled with insulin and a diet, had it been treated sooner. Otto died November 5, 1940.
The children’s reaction to their father’s death was very different. Warren just explained that he was happy that his mother was young and healthy, where as Sylvia said “I will never speak to God again”. Sylvia insisted on going to school the next day as usual. However, when she arrived home after school, she handed her mother a note, which she asked her to sign, promising never to get married again. Riri decided not to take the children to the funeral because she felt that her husband looked more like a mannequin then himself, and she wanted to spare the children any further pain. This turned out to have been interpreted by Sylvia as indifference on her mother’s part. Riri also tried to be strong by not crying until the children were asleep at night and Sylvia in later writing very critically describes her mother at that time.
In spite of her father’s death and the break out of World War II, she did real well in school. She wrote a lot. Although her junior high school years (1944-47) were Sylvia’s awkward years, it just meant that she would throw herself into academics more. She was 5’9”, thin, and with a large nose, and years later she would say that she was glad that she was not pretty at that time because she won all kinds of writing awards instead. Sylvia and her family were all very close and in fact between the years of 1950- 63, Sylvia wrote 696 letters to her family.
During her high school years, Sylvia remained uncritical of both her mother and her father in her writing. At the same time, she was submitting and having stories and poetry published in such magazines as Seventeen, and the Christian Science Monitor. Sylvia’s enormous potential was recognized by many, including Mrs. Prouty, an established and published novelist who along with others funded Sylvia’s education at the Ivy League Smith College. Feeling an obligation to all those that supported her, she strove to be perfect in every aspect of her life. This put enormous pressure on the young girl. This pressure she really never admitted to until after having read an article in a newspaper about the suicide of one of Warren’s classmates at Exeter. In a letter dated November 19, 1952, she very lightly discussed committing suicide over a difficult science class. She began to write for more serious magazines until she was finally offered a position in New York as a writer for the “Mademoiselle” Magazine.
She became a guest editor for “Mademoiselle” for a month. After a month, she came home exhausted to be told by her mother that she had not been accepted to a creative writing class that she had applied to. It caused her to go into a deep depression that nothing could seem to draw her out of. Until one day Riri Plath “…noticed some partially healed gashes on her(Sylvia’s) leg. Upon my horrified questioning, she replied ‘I just wanted to see if I had the guts’ Then she grasped my hand-hers was burning hot to the touch- and cried passionately ‘Oh Mother, the world is so rotten! I want to die! Lets die together!’” So was that in 1953, Sylvia Plath suffered a nervous break down. After some more attempts at suicide, she was hospitalized in the psychiatric wing of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Her association with patients who were sicker than her actually caused her to get even sicker. She was transferred to McLean Hospital where a series of insulin shots and shock treatment apparently cured her. Sylvia went on to continue her education at Smith College, and then later received the Fulbrite grant to study at Cambridge University.
The two years in Cambridge seemed to be happy ones for Sylvia. In February 1956, she met the poet Ted Hughes, and they took an instant liking to each other. Sylvia traveled around Europe and dated various other men, and yet she could not shake off her particular liking for Ted. Sylvia and Ted finally got married on June 13, 1956 in London. They worked in England and hoped to return to America once Sylvia’s studies were completed. Sylvia got a job teaching at Smith college, and her and her husband settled back down in the United States. Both pursued their writing careers and worked off and on until they finally decided to return to London once again.
In February 1960, Sylvia published her first volume of poetry called the “Colossus And Other Poems”. Both poets enjoyed continued success, but were even happier when on April 1, 1960, Sylvia gave birth to her first child, a daughter. A second child, a son, was born to the couple January 17, 1962. It was soon after this second birth that the marriage showed signs of great strain. Sylvia eventually found out that Ted was seeing someone else and she divorced Ted and attempted to continue with a normal life with her two children. She continued to experience success as a writer, and published several more books of poetry. However, her and her children’s illnesses and an extremely bad English winter, along with many lonely nights caused Sylvia to take her life on February 11, 1963.
1. Aurelia Shober Plath. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath. New York City: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.