American Literature Sylvia Plath
Linda Wagner-Martin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0016


Sylvia Plath (b. 1932–d. 1963) was born to well-educated parents, Otto and Aurelia Schober Plath. Otto, who had immigrated from Germany, taught German and zoology at Boston University; he died when Sylvia was eight of complications from undiagnosed diabetes mellitus. Money was tight, so Aurelia returned to teaching, leaving Sylvia and her younger brother to the care of her parents, who moved into their Wellesley home with them. Plath’s childhood and adolescence were a series of academic achievements. She published poetry, fiction, and journalism in several places even before she went to Smith College on a partial scholarship. As an English major there, she was also interested in art; but she was also a less than confident woman of the 1950s, who thought her real role in life was to marry and have children. While she was serving as a Mademoiselle College Board editor in New York the summer following her junior year at Smith, she had a breakdown and was put through a series of electroconvulsive shock treatments; later, she tried to commit suicide. As a result, she was hospitalized for six months (and given more shock treatments), but in January 1954 she returned to Smith and graduated the following year summa cum laude. Winning a Fulbright to Cambridge, she studied for an MA and met—and married (on 16 June 1956)—British writer Ted Hughes. For the next several years, they lived in the United States, both trying to live by the money they earned writing. In December 1959, they sailed back to England and made that their home—first London and then their manor house in North Tawton—while Plath bore and cared for two children, Frieda and Nicholas, and published The Colossus and Other Poems, Three Women, and The Bell Jar. It was during the year following Nicholas’s birth, when Plath experienced mood swings and serious depression, that she wrote the poems that comprised Ariel, some of them the so-called “October poems” like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” written after her husband had moved out of their house and was living in London. She killed herself by gas the night of 11 February 1963, just two weeks after her novel was published to good reviews. The story of her wide acceptance as a poet, and the celebrity that ensued, is largely posthumous. In 1981 when Ted Hughes published The Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the following year, her great skill as a poet was finally acknowledged. When Ted Hughes, Plath’s executor, published his 1998 collection Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters just months before his death, another round of critical controversy erupted.

General Overviews

Because the tendency in today’s criticism is to separate the writer’s life from discussions of aspects of the work, the body of criticism on Plath is sharply divided. While there are more biographies than might be expected, the critical studies that attempt to be comprehensive are limited: most critical studies have a clearly defined theoretical bias (see Criticism). Earlier critiques (Aird 1973, Hall 1998, Broe 1980) tend to be less politicized; Bundtzen 1983 and Van Dyne 1993, though emphasizing the ways in which Plath’s work fits into the feminism of the time, are very evenhanded. Axelrod 1990 was one of the first works by Plath critics to place her in a cultural historicism that was not strictly limited to the United States. Dickie Uroff 1979 and Clark 2011 both provide comparisons between Plath’s work and that of Hughes.

  • Aird, Eileen M. Sylvia Plath. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.

    Good commentary on all of the poet’s work published at that time (The Collected Poems did not appear until 1981). This sensitive critic places Plath in a mid-century milieu without becoming overtly political.

  • Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

    Avoiding biography to a large extent, Axelrod manages to place Plath in a sociohistorical context that emphasizes her intellectual prowess, as well as her keen abilities to learn from her surroundings.

  • Broe, Mary Lynn. Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

    Broe draws on archival materials, especially those at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, and gives much more attention than was then common to Plath’s relationships with her mother, father, and grandparents. Broe is intent on getting the woman’s story accurately told.

  • Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

    This critic benefits from the availability of The Collected Poems, and from the acceptance of feminist and gender approaches. Good attention to work often overlooked (i.e., “Three Women”).

  • Clark, Heather. The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Clark is the first critic of a comparative study to have access to the immense holdings at Emory University, and her wide-ranging tapestry of the uses Plath made of Hughes’s writings, and Hughes’s uses of Plath’s work, is correspondingly enriched.

  • Dickie Uroff, Margaret. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

    Delayed for more than three years because the Hughes estate would not give the author permissions in a timely fashion, this study provided a great deal of new information at a crucial time in the study of both writers’ work.

  • Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1998.

    Originally published in 1978. Although this study follows the standard Twayne series format, its author is not limited by those restrictions. Good readings and an almost apolitical approach have kept this book, though somewhat short, useful and current.

  • Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

    This book is best read accompanied by the author’s earlier manuscript studies of Plath’s writing practices. Because the estate did not give permission for Van Dyne’s extensive quotation from unpublished manuscripts, she was forced to subsume her excellent observations about the writing of the poem into a less specific reading of the work.

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