Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963)
Sylvia started her life in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts on October 27, 1932. During her
early childhood, Sylvia's father Otto suffered from a lengthy illness. Otto, certain he had
cancer, did not seek treatment initially. When he finally did see a doctor, a case of
diabetes was diagnosed but by that time his illness was advanced. His end was fraught with
suffering which included the amputation of a leg. Reference to the leg is made in "Daddy"
Otto died just days past Sylvia's 8th birthday.
Sylvia was an excellent student and in 1950 she was accepted into Smith College on a
scholarship. She was at the top of her class and should logically have been very happy.
That was not the case. She lived in fear that it would be found out that she wasn't the
perfectly happy person she tried to project. In 1952 she won the first prize of $500 from
Mademoiselle magazine for her short story "Sunday at the Minton’s". The following June
1953, Sylvia was a guest editor at the Mademoiselle New York offices, which she later wrote
about in The Bell Jar. She came home from New York in a state of exhaustion and depression.
She was counting on being accepted into Frank O'Connor's creative writing course at Harvard
and when she wasn't, she went into a state of withdrawal. She was distraught, scared
inside, unable to sleep or function, but still determined to show the world a brave face.
On August 24th, unable to carry on any longer, she attempted suicide. For the next months
she was institutionalised at Maclean Hospital and was treated with insulin therapy and shock
treatments. During this period of hospitalisation, Sylvia unknowingly was collecting
material for her novel The Bell Jar and short story "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams".
In October 1955, Sylvia attended Newnham College at Cambridge University on a Fulbright
scholarship. After a series of go nowhere relationships and numerous blind dates, Sylvia
met Ted Hughes at a St. Botolph's party on February 25, 1956. They were married on a rainy
day in London on June 16th of the same year and honeymooned in Benidorm, Spain. Ted Hughes
describes the details of their wedding beautifully in his poem "A Pink Wool Knitted Dress"
in Birthday Letters.
After the conclusion of her studies at Cambridge in the spring of 1957, Sylvia was asked to
teach English at Smith College, where she had taken her undergraduate studies. Sylvia
returned to America, bringing her husband with her. Her mother, Aurelia Plath, made them a
present of a vacation on Cape Cod. Sylvia was excited at the prospect of teaching English,
an obvious favorite subject area. She wasn't long on the faculty when she felt overwhelmed.
She chastised herself for presuming that she could teach. The preparatory work was
exhausting and she perceived the faculty's coldness to her. She had dreamed of giving
marvellous lectures and leisurely writing her book. As was her lot, she must be brilliant
and make it look as "easy as pie". She was sick frequently and most unhappy. When the year
was over, she did not return. The College was very satisfied with Sylvia's performance, but
Sylvia felt she had failed and she wouldn't go back for another year. Already Sylvia was
beginning to have doubts about Ted's love for her. She needed constantly to be reassured.
Sylvia took a less taxing clerical position as a receptionist in the psychiatric clinic of
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and continued with her writing. In early December
of 1958 she began to secretly see Ruth Boucher, her therapist from McLean, where she had
been hospitalized after her earlier suicide attempt in the summer of 1953. She also
attended an evening poetry class, which was given by Robert Lowell, whose confessional style
influenced Sylvia’s poetry.
In December 1959 Sylvia and Ted returned to England. Sylvia was pregnant and due to give
birth in the spring of 1960. On April 1st, Frieda Rebecca was born. During her pregnancy,
on February 10th, Sylvia signed a contract with William Heinemann Ltd. to publish The
Colossus, which was to come out in October 1960. Outwardly Sylvia showed amazing energy.
She scoured and scrubbed their London flat, wanting a pretty home for herself, her husband
and their yet to be born baby. Inwardly she felt exhausted and barely able to carry on, but
unwilling to let the world know and her circumstances pressed in on her. She wanted
everything, and the writing was her outlet and her curse. It was both her salvation and
The following February 1961 a miscarriage left Sylvia feeling depressed. She wrote of it in
a poem "Parliament Hill Fields".
In August 1961 the Hughes family moved to a Devon farm and Sylvia was isolated. Ted had
become more removed from her. A son Nicholas Farrar was born on January 17th, 1962. In
July, Sylvia discovered Ted's affair with Assia Wevill. Sylvia and Ted separated in
September. In the following month Sylvia wrote at least 26 of the Ariel poems.
In December 1962, Sylvia took the children with her to London and moved into an apartment at
23 Fitzroy Road, which was the former home of poet William Butler Yeats. The Bell Jar was
published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in January 1963. On February 11, 1963
Sylvia gave up her life.
Although Sylvia Plath's life was brief in conventional terms, her life was rich in
experiences. She received accolades in the form of prizes, awards, and scholarships. She
had literary successes, although none so great as those that were endowed on her
post-humously. In 1982 she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her Collected Poems.
Sylvia Plath was many things to many people; she was daughter, sister, student and teacher,
wife and mother, and finally a writer. In death, she continues to influence people for more
than her literary excellence.
She was a bright, intelligent, and determined young woman with a need to succeed and a
burning desire to write. Sylvia had other needs that clashed with her literary ambitions.
She dreamed of the comfort of a home of her own where she could belong and be loved for
herself. She wanted a good husband and children. In school and outside of it, she was a
high achiever never being able to quite reach the very high expectations she set for
herself. No one was able to drive Sylvia more than herself. She knew self-doubt and
depression. Yet to the world she presented a carefree, it's so easy attitude. In reality
she worked, pushing herself relentlessly, whether in her studies, her teaching, in her
relationships or her writing. Only those nearest to her knew how troubled Sylvia's life
Biography by: This biography was written by Joan Welz of the University of Alberta, as part of a Master's Degree in Library and Information Studies.