Tuesday, May 16, 2006



The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, Edited by Karen V. Kukil
(Anchor, New York, 2000)

Unburnable Remains

The Unabridged Journals documents Plath's student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England. It covers the years 1950-1962, and includes two journals previously sealed by Hughes. This collection is a faithful transcription from the original, duplicating even Plath's misspellings and grammatical errors.


I found the Journals problematic the first time I read it. But my reasons were personal--I was projecting my own perceptions and fears, and I was uncomfortable with the word "unexpurgated", precisely because it revealed too much. Why didn't she destroy the parts that were sacrosanct or that could potentially demonize her? Had she considered at all if and how these journals should survive her, in the months preceding her suicide?

But for all her convoluted pain and tragic emotional state, Plath was creating spaces for love. I read the Journals a second time, carefully weaving through her mental processes, balancing aesthetics and psychology. And so, I made her "rise (yet) again, out of the ash, with her red hair". In so doing, I had to re-calibrate my own mindset, to re-learn the diarist's pre-Lazarus psyche.

The 1950 Journal begins tenuously,

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. (1950)

Plath, at points of near-happiness, would draw back and revert to introspection (edged by melancholia, and later, hysteria). She further writes,

With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can't start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It's like quicksand ... hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don't want to die. (1950)

This foreshadowing of death would take a more violent, more amplified form in later works. Thus, in a sense, Plath's adult journals are an autobiography of suicide. Consider the last entry, taking on an elliptical shape:

A bad day. A bad time. State of mind most important for work. A blithe, itchy eager state where the poem itself, the story itself is supreme. (1959)

Plath's skill as a writer is highly evident in the way she described (sometimes, maliciously) seemingly quotidian details:

THE SILVER PIE SERVER: Mrs. Guinea and Sadie Peregrine: war of two old shuttledoors and battlecocks. Loneliness and meanness of two. Odd friendship. Frogs: cold, slimy pets. Thoughts, emotions of Mrs. Guinea. Gloomy, lugubrious. Rug-changing incident. Vengeance on young happy couple upstairs, always arguing, crying, but apparently happy. Broken leg. They search for pie-server, but do not find it. Symbol of propriety of gloom, Mrs. Doom. (1959)

As love to her became increasingly unreal, she recounted her relationships in an almost drawn manner, said relationships aggravating what was already a highly polarized mental state:

It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative--which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great muscular owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching and constricting my heart. (1958)

Plath's father died when she was eight, from complications of diabetes, and she despised her mother for it (for being the martyr who lived her life through her children):

So how do I express my hate for my mother? In my deepest emotions I think of her as an enemy: somebody who "killed" my father, my first male ally in the world. She is a murderess of maleness. I lay in my bed when I thought my mind was going blank forever and thought what a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat which could never be big enough to protect me from the world. But I was too nice for murder. I tried to murder myself: to keep from being an embarrassment to the ones I loved and from living myself in a mindless hell. How thoughtful: Do unto yourself as you would do to others. I'd kill her, so I killed myself. (1958)

Out of her colossal need to give and receive love, her husband became to her a demigod, and it was Hughes's supposed infidelity and abandonment which ultimately led to her self-destruction:

I identify him with my father at certain times, and these times take on great importance: eg that one fight at the end of the school year when I found him not-there on the special day and with another woman. I had a furious access of rage. He knew how I love him and felt, and yet wasn't there. Isn't this an image of what I feel my father did to me? I think it may be. The reason I haven't discussed it with Ted is that the situation hasn't come up again and it is not a characteristic of his: if it were, I would feel wronged in my trust on him. It was an incident only that drew forth echoes, not the complete withdrawal of my father who deserted me forever. Ask: why didn't I talk about it afterwards? Is this a plausible interpretation. If it had come up since, it would be recollected by the stir-up of similar incidents and fears. Ted, insofar as he is a male presence is a substitute for my father: but in no other way. Images of his faithlessness with women echo my fear of my father's relation with my mother and Lady Death. (1958)

The publication of The Unabridged Journals brings with it a shoving crowd, continually analyzing, re-assessing, and resurrecting Plath. And she rose out of the ash, glued together by compressed fibers. I wonder, would she consider me a peanut-eater, even as I reverently "unwrap her hand and foot"?


Aileen Ibardaloza trained as a molecular biologist and is currently the Associate Editor of Our Own Voice.


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