The Real Story Of Sylvia Plath’s Final Moments
By Steve P
Sylvia Plath is known for her writing, but also for the tragic nature of her death. Many are aware that she left this world long before her time, yet there are elements of her life story that relatively few people are aware of. We’re going to take a look at this heartbreaking tale, while exploring and celebrating the life and legacy that Plath left behind.
The date of her death
On February 11, 1963, the body of Plath was discovered at her home at 23 Fitzroy Road, north London. She was found by a nurse, who’d been sent to assist with childcare, and Charles Langridge, a workman. The nurse asked Langridge to help her when she couldn’t gain access to the property; there had been great concern about her wellbeing ahead of the visit.
A shocking loss
Plath had taken her own life in the kitchen. The gas oven was on, and the door to her childrens’ room was taped off to protect them from the fumes. It was later revealed that Plath had woken early, leaving food out for the kids and giving them extra blankets. Her death shocked the world, coming as it did at the age of just 30.
The inquest's verdict
An inquest was held, which confirmed her demise from carbon monoxide poisoning. Why had she done it? Various factors have been highlighted, from the end of her relationship with husband and fellow writer Ted Hughes, to a creative struggle. There was also another type of struggle going on inside Plath: her fluctuating mental health had long been a factor in her life.
Where she was buried
She was laid to rest at the St Thomas A. Beckett churchyard in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire; Hughes had been born in the county. Plath is still celebrated today, but not everyone thinks her memory is being honored in the right way. As you’ll see, the poet and author has been characterized in a certain light in the years following her passing.
Plath’s early years
Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father Otto had arrived in America from Germany; he was a professor who specialized in apiology or, to be more precise, bees. His daughter would later go on to write an unflattering poem about him titled “Daddy.” In fact, Plath’s relationship with both her parents was apparently a strained one.
A strained relationship with her parents
Website Poets.org noted that Otto “had been strict, and both his authoritarian attitudes and his death drastically defined Plath’s relationships and her poems”. He succumbed to complications from diabetes when his daughter was eight, just as her writing talent was starting to emerge. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, was also in education, working as an associate professor teaching new medical secretaries.
Plath and her mother
Aurelia, or at least Sylvia’s interpretation of her, influenced the 1957 poem “The Disquieting Muses” and 1962’s “Medusa.” The relationship was also reportedly explored in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. Aurelia would eventually release correspondence from her daughter in 1975. These letters and others have been pored over by scholars, but they have proved problematic.
What was Plath like?
The different voices Plath used in her letters makes it difficult to pin her down as an individual. In a sense, she was only doing what many people do, tailoring her words depending on who was reading them. Yet the intense interest in her life story has led to various commentators and writers attempting to define what she was actually like.
Plath’s childhood in her own words
Speaking about her younger years during an interview in the early 1960s, Plath referred to growing up by the ocean. In a reflection of the imaginative feats she would later perform, Plath mentioned the sight of sharks in her garden. This wasn’t exaggerated: the dreaded sea creatures had washed up there. She referred to her mind as “a subconscious sea, a sort of flow of thoughts”.
Plath was alright, or so it seemed anyway, until the age of nine. She described being “very carefree” up to this point. Yet as the years of early childhood innocence melted away, she became “more realistic and depressed”. Her teenage years only nurtured a sense of the world growing darker around her. She felt introverted, and this in turn fueled her writing and shaped her creativity.
A young talent
When did Plath’s writing career begin? She wrote her first published poem aged eight. The British Library’s website noted she had “written 50 short stories by the time she won a prize scholarship to Smith College, where she excelled academically and published poems and journalistic pieces.”
An exceptional mind
At the age of 12, Plath had been assessed and classified as a genius. With an I.Q. score of 160, it was clear that she was destined for some kind of greatness. Her poetry collections The Colossus and Other Poems — published in 1960 — and 1965’s Ariel cemented her reputation. She continues to influence generations of young people. Yet is she being remembered fairly?
Clinical depression and shame
Plath’s family were reportedly ashamed of her illness, which was clinical depression: she was diagnosed aged 20. When she died a decade later, it was in fact her third attempt at taking her own life. The psychiatrist Ruth Barnhouse spoke to and corresponded with Plath in the period leading up to her death; unsurprisingly she attributes the cause of her suicide to her depressive state.
Explanations and answers
Of course, Plath died at a time when mental health was less well-understood. Whilst there is a credible explanation for her actions, blame has been directed at other elements. Ultimately Plath didn’t give a definitive insight into what drove her throughout her life. Yet there is one path commentators go down that is frowned upon by some of her admirers.
Releasing The Bell Jar
One way in which Plath expressed her thoughts about her own experiences was in The Bell Jar. This 1963 book was the only novel she published. Released the month before her passing, it went out under the pen name of Victoria Lucas. She’d decided not to use her name because of the delicate subject-matter. So what exactly was the story about?
A fictionalized version of her life
The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, focusing on the troubled character of Esther Greenwood. She is an aspiring writer who finds herself ground down by circumstances and her mental state. The title refers to a vacuum-creating vessel inside which Esther feels she’s trapped, drawing an analogy to her depression. Plath was reportedly unsure of the work, and faced difficulty getting it published.
In 2013 British newspaper The Guardian mentioned comments made by Elizabeth Sigmund, a friend of the author’s. She accused Hughes — who died in 1998 — and family of excluding her from the book’s dedication. Sigmund and her writer husband David were thanked in the first edition, but their names weren’t in the release attributed to Plath. Why did she use the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in the first place?
Sylvia and Aurelia
The Guardian article suggested that Plath wouldn’t have wanted the book “published under her name while her mother, Aurelia Plath, was still alive”, according to Sigmund. So, despite The Bell Jar’s unflattering content, Plath may have had some sensitivity to her family’s feelings. Indeed, her mother felt the fictional presentation of herself was cruel, and tried blocking the novel’s publication in America.
Was Plath pigeonholed?
What with her suicide at a young age, her turbulent background and complex works, the story of Plath is often presented in harrowing terms. Writing for the BBC, Lillian Crawford says that the poet is seen as “a crude symbol of the girl outsider” who takes control of her destiny with devastating results. Standards are applied to her which aren’t deemed too relevant to male writers.
Meeting Ted Hughes
Crawford highlights the fact that Dylan Thomas, another acclaimed poet who died tragically a decade before Plath, hasn’t had his creative works and personal struggles fused together in the same way. Away from her demons, Plath found happiness in her relationship with Hughes, whom she met in 1956. The setting was Cambridge University, and what sounds like a raucous party.
A violent encounter
Plath had been aware of Hughes’ writing before they crossed paths. He was a couple of years or so older than her. And it wasn’t the most romantic of introductions, it seems. Writing in her journals, Plath describes some mutual stamping followed by physical assault! She wrote that Hughes “kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off”.
Marriage and moving
She then “bit him long and hard on the cheek”. Just months later the couple tied the knot in Holborn, London: Plath’s mother Aurelia was among the guests. At the time, Plath was studying at Newnham College, a women-only institution at Cambridge University. The pair would later move to America, where she mixed in new circles.
Plath develops as a writer
Plath met the poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, who told her they believed she needed to make her writing more personal. This advice had a big influence on her work. In 1960 just months after the birth of her first child, Frieda, Plath released her collection The Colossus. She went on to suffer a miscarriage but had another child — Nicholas — with Hughes.
Plath and Hughes separate
In late 1962 Plath and Hughes broke up. She found out he’d been having an affair with German poet Assia Wevill. In a truly morbid development, Wevill went on to commit suicide in 1969. Like Plath, she gassed herself. Wevill’s young daughter sadly passed away alongside her. When Plath died, focus was placed on Hughes and his potential role in her decision.
Such was the outrage, that people visited Plath’s headstone and chiseled the surname “Hughes” away. The name was restored, but then removed again: things got to the stage where her grave went unmarked for a time. Adding to the tension, in 2012 the “Plath” part was defaced by a group calling themselves Masculinists for Ted Hughes. His books have also been vandalized in shops.
A major film
The year 2003 saw the release of Sylvia, a biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role and Daniel Craig as Hughes. The film was criticized by Plath’s daughter Frieda, who went on to write a poem attacking the production. The movie was helmed by Christine Jeffs, who had replaced the original director Pawel Pawlikowski. He’d left because, in his own words, it became too “Hollywood” in nature.
Looking at Plath in the 21st century
Any interpretation of Plath today must surely consider her life in a sensitive and more enlightened way than certain previous books and general analyses. In her piece for the BBC, Crawford highlighted how students were “looking at Plath's work from transnational and disability perspectives”. Her uncertainty over being an Englishwoman in America comes into play here, as well as her illness.
The experience of shock therapy
She endured some harsh treatment with regards to her depression. Electroconvulsive therapy — or ECT — was used: it must have been a horrible experience. The poet mined the details for her novel The Bell Jar, with its main character Esther Greenwood undergoing ECT. It’s a controversial course of treatment that is still endorsed and used today.
The real story of Plath’s final moments
Ultimately, Plath took the decision to end her life: the thought-processes behind such an act aren’t something that can be easily explained. As we said earlier, attempts to gain a full understanding of who Plath was and what she was going through are often frustrated by a lack of definitive detail. What we can do is describe the events leading up to her death.
Seeking help at the end
The month before she died, Plath was engaging with John Horder, a doctor who spoke with her about her issues. It’s known that during this time she was experiencing a lengthy depressive episode, which according to her had lasted approximately six months. Plath had also moved back to the U.K., taking the children with her to the Fitzroy Road flat in late 1962.
Strange literary connections
Interestingly, the influential writer W.B. Yeats had also lived in the Fitzroy Road house. This detail perhaps adds to the sense of a fatalistic creative talent doomed to a grim demise by their inner demons. Yeats passed away from congestive heart failure aged 73; artist Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot had also taken his own life down the road half a century earlier.
A cold morning
The weather was bitterly cold, with London in the grip of the famous “Big Freeze”, adding to the hardship. Plath was reportedly finding it very difficult to cope. She couldn’t sleep and had lost weight. Because Dr. Horder was in the same area, he could make visits to Plath himself to check up on her. It was him who sent the nurse who would find Plath’s body.
Other players in the tragedy
Dr. Horder had also prescribed Plath anti-depressants, though some doubt exists about whether there had been sufficient time for the medication to work before her suicide. On the morning of February 11, she’d spoken to her neighbor Trevor Thomas, who lived downstairs. This was reportedly in order to ask him if he was going to leave his flat. Speculation exists as to why she did this.
Did she mean to kill herself?
Plath also left a note, which included Dr. Horder’s details and a request to call him. Why did she do this? Some have theorized that she wanted Thomas to spot the note and take action after she’d turned on the gas. Yet others, including the physician himself, have described Plath’s behavior as consistent with someone determined to kill themselves.
Plath's cause of death
Her death resulted from carbon monoxide poisoning in the kitchen: Plath had switched on the oven and reportedly placed her head inside. She’d ensured that Frieda and Nicholas were sealed off from the gas, though her aforementioned neighbor Thomas was affected in his sleep, and went into a deeper slumber because of the fumes.
A worldwide impact
Dr. Horder had originally wanted Plath to go into hospital, but couldn’t insist on it. While various people who knew Plath were devastated, it can be reasonably argued that no-one could have prevented this tragedy from taking place.All the same, her death had a huge impact, not only on her loved ones but readers across the globe. Hughes was massively affected by the suicide.
In a letter, Hughes described his life as being effectively over. Everything that followed would be, in his words, “posthumous”. He did go on to live for many more years, though further grief plagued the family after his death. Son Nicholas, who became a fisheries biologist, committed suicide on March 16, 2009, at the age of 47. The cause was depression. Frieda is a writer and artist.
Plath's modern influence
Interest in Plath arguably never waned since that terrible day six decades ago. Crawford noted the presence of The Bell Jar in hit Netflix series Sex Education, showing that those behind the streaming generation are more than aware of her significance and how she relates to young people and their struggles. That said, this image is regarded as something of a cliche.
Some think that, instead of focusing on Plath’s suicide, people should look at her long and fruitful artistic journey as a key to understanding who she was. All too often she’s viewed through the prism of her death, and commentators are keen that this shouldn’t define someone who has inspired so many.
The work speaks for itself
The real story of Plath’s final moments is an upsetting one. Yet, like any major tragedy, it has been reframed as something that was a part of someone’s existence, rather than its definitive moment. Her impressive body of work speaks for itself.