Revisiting the Journals of Sylvia Plath

The following piece contains excerpts from a presentation I gave for my IB HL Literature class.

Sylvia Plath is one of the few writers whose works have mirrored all the thoughts, anxieties, and fears that I write about each day. As a young girl, most of the books I read were by men of the Beat Generation like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I turned to them for their ability to create words and stories that resonated with me for years, yet they were unable to connect with me on a personal level for the many ways that they perceived and misunderstood the minds of women.

Finding Plath’s journals and the transparency with which she wrote about life was like finding someone who could see every single thought I kept inside my head. It’s because of this that the thoughts, feelings, and experiences depicted in her journals continue to be relevant and deeply relatable for me as a young woman.

Plath’s journals from 1950-1953 and 1950-1956 were reflective of the anxiety and doubt she felt as she questioned her purpose in life during her time at Smith and at Cambridge. She writes, “What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don’t know and I’m afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want…I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad.” (P181)

The first time I read this quote, I saw that Plath was the only one to ever understand the same struggle that I felt to be content and find meaning in all of my endeavors. Like me, Plath is so ambitious and so motivated, and yet there are times when she cannot find the drive to achieve what she wants. She struggles to find meaning in what she describes as “4 years of food, shelter, exams and papers,” which is what I sometimes feel as I go through the motion of school, piles of homework, and interacting with my family and friends every single day. (P185) I know that all of these actions will in some way lead me towards my dreams, and yet there is so much fear I feel “of not succeeding intellectually and academically; the worst blow to security.” (P187)

The only time I feel secure and content is when I know I’ve done something that my future self will thank me for. Yet even when I do succeed, there are times when I too “find it so difficult to accept the present moment, whole as an apple,” without over-analyzing and comparing myself with others; in effect turning my success into a burden rather than something for me to be proud of and thankful for. (P193) Plath too had much to live for and endless opportunities to pursue, and yet she couldn’t help but question the significance of her experiences and get caught up over the fear of not being able to reach her full potential.

As a feminist, Plath has always meant so much to me because of her openness regarding the many issues that women were facing in the 1950s; issues that still exist today. She wrote in her journals, “RB says: There is a difference between dissatisfaction with yourself and anger, depression…. If you are angry at someone else, and repress it, you get depressed…Who am I angry at? … It is my mother and all the mothers I have known who have wanted me to be what I have not felt like really being from my heart and at the society which seems to want us to be what we do not want to be from our hearts: I am angry at these people and images.” (P437)

When Plath used irreverent language in her poems and questioned why “the man must so often take the lead” (202) in romantic relationships, she in effect questioned why women were expected to be demure and submissive in both their public and private lives as very few writers had done before. As a young woman also working to pursue higher education and a successful career, this is the same attitude I feel whenever my outspokenness and dreams of pursuing arts and humanities professions are met with raised eyebrows and disapproving looks.

When I first read Plath’s journals as a high school freshman, I was deeply moved by how easily I could relate to her. And yet what struck me most was that despite how thoroughly Plath would analyze and revisit the events of each passing day, she was constantly drawn to sadness and death. As early as when she was at Smith, she wrote about her belief that real happiness did not exist and that what was real was neither beautiful nor joyful. “Is anyone anywhere happy? No, not unless they are living in a dream or in an artifice that they or someone else has made.” (P184) Even everyday actions reminded Plath of her struggle with death and suicide, as she wrote of how “Over orange juice & coffee even the embryonic suicide brighten[ed] visibly.” (P185) No matter how hard she tried to find meaning in her endeavors, she saw each day as a day closer to her death; the same death and sadness that permeated her thoughts on all the people and experiences she encountered throughout her life.

Plath’s journals are relevant and deeply relatable to young women like me because of the parallel experiences of anxiety and sadness they depict, as well as the transparency and openness with which she writes about life. Having grown up reading piles of books from a literary world with views on women that had been thoroughly misunderstood, I will always be thankful to have found Sylvia Plath, a woman whose written works portray women as real and relatable without ever being restricted by society’s expectations.

Works Cited

  1. Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.

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