Legacy of Sylvia Plath: Lessons on Feminism and Mental Health

When I was in my late teens I spent much of my time lost in reveries, dreaming up alternate plots for the books I read. I wanted to continue existing in my own realm of innocence – one not corrupted by this shrewd world – but life hardly progresses according to our whims and fancies.

While searching for myself through the adventures of Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, I stumbled across the confessional style of poetry and writing explored in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Her unusual wit instantly captivated me, as did her brutally honest portrayal of the stigma surrounding mental health. Like many other teenagers, till then I had only resonated with the teen angst depicted in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and reading Plath’s works felt like entering uncharted territory.

She exemplified her melancholic thoughts through poetry and harnessed her extraordinary imagination to capture her pain. I held onto her world of poetry because it felt therapeutic and made me feel less alone in my miseries. Reading more about her life later, I found out that she had been a gifted child who, like me, had felt crushed under the weight of age-old expectations of maturity. Plath, like me, did not understand why she had been steeped in the make-believe of fairy tales when real life was nothing like it.

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Sadly, Plath lost the fight to her demons and died by suicide at the age of 30 but she succeeded in bringing to the surface the complexities and gravity of mental illness. Depression is not something you can easily perceive, which is why it is an “invisible” illness. Yet, Plath’s poetry brought a tangibility to it. The passion with which she wrote, the pain that she conveyed through her pen, helped to encourage discussions about mental health and inspired countless people to embrace their vulnerability through their art.

Her unflinching perspectives guided me in breaking my silence on issues of trauma and depression. On bad days, reading her Unabridged Journals made me confront my feelings and encouraged me to find the roots of my discontentment with myself. If it hadn’t been for her, it would have become increasingly difficult for me to cope with my mental health.

Plath’s life might have been full of struggles, disappointments and limitations, but her legacy lives on in those she inspired. Her contribution to society is not limited to the advancement of mental health awareness, she was also instrumental in inspiring the second wave of feminism. She did not conform to the patriarchal narrative of a ‘happy woman’ who considers serving men as her prime duty and fulfilment. Her poems like Daddy and Lady Lazarus explore themes of objectification of women, their oppression and a conflict between work and family life.

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As women still struggle to reconcile their work and family, Plath’s poems provide comfort and a sense of solidarity. Throughout her lifetime, she was plagued by the troubled relationships she had with her ex-husband Ted Hughes and her father. Her predicaments shaped how the world viewed her – a woman of extraordinary genius weighed down by the burden of a failed marriage and two children. Plath’s words, “I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still”, capture her mettle as a writer who finds liberation in poetic expression and a woman who cannot accept male dominance.

Her portrayal of the predicament of women in the 1950s gave me invaluable insight into the status of women in post-war America. At a time when women had only started to reclaim their rights to vote and own property, Plath argued that women were entitled to the same rights and freedoms as men. Plath is emblematic of female anguish and she normalised female anger and unapologetic expression, making her an idol for young women around the world.

I get agitated when I find people fixated on the ‘tragic young woman’ side of her whilst sometimes failing to acknowledge that she was very bright and diligent: a Fulbright scholar with a strong and impudent authenticity. She was constantly railing against the constrictions that society placed on women. As a feminist striving for intersectionality in the movement and navigating my way through this patriarchal society, I find strength in Plath’s dynamic voice and vulnerability.

Shatakshi is a first-year student of Philosophy at Hansraj College, Delhi University.

Featured image credit: Flickr/Wikipedia; Illustration: LiveWire