Sylvia Plath: Millennial Before Her Time

In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer spots a copy of Ariel, Sylvia Plath’s last book of poems, in Annie’s apartment. In an attempt to connect with her, he offers his unsolicited opinion that Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” Ugh.

Sylvia Plath often does appeal to young women, which is natural since she wrote so powerfully about the experience of being a young woman. Perhaps like the phoenix (as in “Lady Lazarus”), she rises again with new relevance for each generation of young women. I personally believe she would feel more at home now than in any previous generation. She had many of the qualities attributed to millennials, such as an early assurance of her gifts and “specialness,” progressive politics, and intense self-awareness.

Admittedly, Sylvia Plath holds a certain romance for many women and men, much like Kurt Cobain another artist who chose to die at a young age. Were they popular because they committed suicide? Certainly not. They continue to be revered because they were sensitive, raw, honest artists who left us wanting more. Perhaps we wonder—if our heroes couldn’t make it, how can we? Rather than draw this conclusion, I think we can learn from their pain. Due to the depth of emotion and compassion expressed by artists like Sylvia Plath, we have to believe they would want us to learn from their pain. Not only do they teach us with their wit and artistry; they also give us insight about how to handle a life of deep emotion and artistry.

I discovered The Bell Jar in high school and felt uncannily understood. Here was beautifully-crafted writing (taken seriously!) about relatable topics like surviving unpleasant internships, dealing with rejection, having crushes, grappling with anxiety, trying to plan out your life. In The Bell Jar, the protagonist (Esther Greenwood) considers her life’s options through the metaphor of a fig tree:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Many people at various points in history have had trouble choosing a lifepath, but the possibilities outlined here sound so especially millennial to me. Most women during Plath’s time (she was born in 1932) didn’t have the career options that she had. Plath’s father had a Ph.D. from Harvard and worked as a professor, and her mother had master’s degrees in English and German. Clearly, education was important for men and women in her family, which gave Sylvia opportunities unique to her generation. It’s as if someone told her from an early age that she could be anything she wanted to be.

I thought of this while perusing One Life: Sylvia Plath, a temporary exhibit that filled a room on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery last year. The first object I noticed when I walked into the exhibit was an artifact from her childhood—a long, reddish-brown ponytail her mother clipped and saved. Placed in a room with photographs and mementos, the ponytail is startling. It is a souvenir of her life rather than her death. Fortunately, the exhibit focused entirely on her life and barely mentioned her death. In addition to the startling ponytail, the exhibit included childhood drawings, poems, and her Girl Scout uniform, all in pristine condition. I learned that Sylvia’s first poem was published in the Boston Herald when she was eight, and that she won awards for her writing and painting from a young age. Sylvia’s early gifts were remarkable, but it is also apparent that Sylvia was treated like a remarkable child. Not only did Sylvia have to show early promise in writing and painting, but her parents (in this case her mother, since her father died when she was eight) had to encourage her. One or more adults in her life had to say, “Whoa! Let’s put this poem in the mail!”

I’m telling you, you should see how long the preserved ponytail is. You should see the perfect condition of her childhood memorabilia. It looks as if Sylvia’s mother was curating a museum exhibit for her daughter from the time she was a baby. Sylvia was (and was told she was!) a special kid. Consider the complaints, the jokes, the thinkpieces attacking millennials for believing we’re special, having been told we were special. For accepting participation trophies and feeling that we deserved them. Why does this make boomers (and even some Gen Xers and fellow millennials) so mad? I suspect they resent having received less parental and societal care, and that they also worry that this generation is under too much pressure.

No doubt, many millennials have worse problems than being accused of thinking they’re special—discrimination and poverty and politics continue to create cataclysmic pain and problems. The millennials I’m comparing Sylvia Plath to are the privileged millennials. The privileged middle class and upper class kids whose parents had money and attention to lavish on them. Parents who took their kids to soccer practice instead of forcing them get jobs. Parents who could afford to pay the dues to buy participation trophies (and other equipment) for tons of activities. This time and attention can be a blessing and a curse. Many parents aren’t giving their kids all this time and attention just for fun or love. Some want their kids to win Nobel Prizes or become Senators, and they assume that early encouragement will help their kids win big. The American Dream, squared.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear—I’m not blaming Sylvia’s parents (or the parents of overachievers in general) for driving them to suicide. Sometimes parents with big dreams produce big results—kids with Olympic medals who sing on Broadway and are perfectly happy. And no one is necessarily doomed to a life of perfectionism and disappointment, even if their parents are.

Mental illness has taken many lives, and with each generation, the stigma decreases and treatment improves. If Sylvia Plath had been a millennial, she would have had more resources at her disposal when things seemed dark. Perhaps this would not have prevented her suicide, though. Perhaps nothing could have. Yet as we continue to understand mental illness from scientific and social perspectives, we all stand a greater chance of remaining confident in our “specialness” and meaning—even when our figs blacken and the world seems bleak.

Many contemporary kids (and, let’s face it, adults) look at their potential life options and feel the same paralysis Esther felt. Choosing one option means letting go of all the others. Worse yet, what if we go to pick one path but find the fruit is just out of our reach? What if we fail in our ambitions? How will we overcome the humiliation?

For one thing, we can forget about the exhibit we will leave behind for the “peanut-crunching crowd” to see at the museum. We don’t have to care what people will say about us, or if anyone says anything about us at all. Plath couldn’t have known the impact she would continue to have years after her death. Instead, she lived recklessly, at triple speed—writing powerfully, reading widely, studying art, traveling everywhere, kissing strange men at parties, getting mad as hell, making and breaking friendships, dying her hair, adoring her children, keeping bees. Although her life was dark at times, it was also brilliant.

So if some dude picks up your copy of Ariel and dismisses the young women who love it but don’t “get it”—tell him he’s the one who doesn’t get it. It isn’t Sylvia Plath’s death, but her life that young women find beautiful.

1 thought on “Sylvia Plath: Millennial Before Her Time”

  1. Being understood is so important. If I hadn’t been understood by Dostoevsky’s Underground Man at sixteen–what it was like to have a hamster wheel mind and crippling hyperscrupulosity for a conscience–not sure where I’d be. Still not exactly sure where I am, but that’s not the point. If Sylvia Plath does that for anyone, she by all means should be preserved and honored.

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