French writer and artist Edouard Levé wrote and submitted his book Suicide in 2008 before killing himself ten days later. Sartre wrote that an author’s death changes his or her work into an oeuvre, giving it a coherence. Levé echoes the idea in Suicide: “Only the living seem incoherent. Death closes the series of events that constitutes their lives. So we resign ourselves to finding meaning for them.”
“Finding meaning” in the face of death is one of the major reasons why, exactly 50 years to the day after she committed suicide by gassing herself with her oven at age 30 on Feb. 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath remains such a source of intrigue for readers.
Just last week, Scribner published Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girls Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, an account of Plath’s childhood and adolescence, with exhaustive attention to her love life. A new edition of The Bell Jar, with a terribly inappropriate cover, made waves on the Internet. The Observer has published several pieces of Plath interest, including an interview with Olywn Hughes, Ted Hughes’ sister and gatekeeper of the Plath Estate, who never gives interviews. And in April, Harper will publish Pain, Parties, Work, a chronicle of Plath’s time in New York working at Mademoiselle, the inspiration for The Bell Jar, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
In fact, “the way she chose to quit” her life, as Levé puts it, has been “inverting [Plath’s] biography” since the very day she died. Hughes, fearing for his children, burned her final journals. He also published Ariel in a different order than she had indicated in the manuscript she left behind. The women’s movement co-opted Plath’s story, of a woman scorned, and biographies, both flattering and unflattering have flown off shelves. The publication of the unabridged journals was our first listen at Plath’s voice above all the hubbub, but then came the Hollywood treatment starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003.
Aside from interest in her personal life, there’s a whole slew of reasons to read Plath: The Bell Jar’s surprising humor, the violent and beautiful poetry of Ariel, the vivacious journals that are both completely relatable and horribly neurotic. Would Plath’s poetry stand the test of time had she survived? The poems wouldn’t be as strong or iconic because her death is inextricable from her legacy. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in her brilliant essay about Plath, “suicide was not a necessity to the passion and brilliance of the poems; nevertheless the act is key, central to the overwhelming burst of achievement.” That said, certainly the The Bell Jar would remain a modern classic, even if Plath had lived to the age of 80.
Sylvia Plath remains an icon because we can assign whatever story we’d like to her life—whichever fits us best. Her suicide, as Janet Malcolm wrote, has made her “the silent woman,” a perfect vehicle for our projections as women, as writers, as readers, as people. And though we undoubtedly lost a great writer at the young age of 30, Plath’s absence has been essential to her status as an icon.
We’ll never really know the “real” Sylvia Plath, and perhaps that’s for best. Suicide, to quote Levé, is a foundational act. It’s as if Plath were an actor, who at the end of play, “with a final word,” reveals that she is “a different character than the one she appeared to be playing.” And 50 years on, the revelations keep coming.