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The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath


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The Cambridge Introduction to
Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is widely recognised as one of the leading figures in twentieth-century Anglo-American literature and culture. Her work has remained constantly in print in the UK and USA (and in numerous translated editions) since the appearance of her first collection in 1960. Plath’s own writing has been supplemented over the decades by a wealth of critical and biographical material. The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath offers an authoritative and comprehensive guide to Plath’s poetry, prose and autobiographical writings. It offers a critical overview of key readings, debates and issues from almost fifty years of Plath scholarship; draws attention to the historical, literary, national and gender contexts which provide the framework for her writing; and provides informed and attentive readings of her work. Accessibly written, this book will be of great value to students beginning their explorations of this important writer.

Jo Gill is Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Exeter.

The Cambridge Introduction to

Sylvia Plath


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Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© Jo Gill 2008

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2008

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data
Gill, Jo, 1965–
The Cambridge introduction to Sylvia Plath / Jo Gill.
   p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-521-86726-9 (hardback) – ISBN 978-0-521-68695-2 (paperback)
1. Plath, Sylvia – Criticism and interpretation. 2. Women and literature – United States – History – 20th century. I. Title.
PS3566.L27Z665   2008
811′.54 – dc22       2008025534

ISBN 978-0-521-86726-9 hardback
ISBN 978-0-521-68695-2 paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or
accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to
in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such
websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


Preface page ix
Acknowledgements xi
Abbreviations and textual note xii
1 Life 1
Family 1
Marriage 7
England 10
2 Contexts 14
Literary contexts 15
‘Poetess of America’ 17
Confessional poetry 19
Historical and ideological contexts 21
World War Ⅱ 22
Postwar cultures 24
Domesticity and the suburbs 26
England 28
3 Early poetry 29
Juvenilia and other early poems 30
English influences 33
The Colossus 35
Creativity and self-creation 40
Crossing the Water 43
Transformation and change 44
Displacement 49
4 Ariel and later poetry 51
Ariel 53
Echoes 53
The bee sequence, ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’ 58
Ariel: The Restored Edition 64
Winter Trees and other late poems 66
Three Women 69
5 The Bell Jar and Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams 73
The Bell Jar 73
Narrative voice 78
The double 79
Subjectivity 83
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams 84
Value 85
English stories 90
America 91
6 Letters Home and Journals 93
Letters Home 93
Rendering account 97
Leaving home 100
The Journals of Sylvia Plath 101
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982): the abridged edition 101
Masks 104
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000): the unabridged edition 105
7 Reception 111
Biography 111
Confessional 115
Mythology 117
Feminist readings 119
Psychoanalytical approaches 123
History and politics 125
New directions 128
Notes 129
Further reading 140
Index 146


Sylvia Plath is widely recognised as one of the leading figures in twentieth-century literature and culture. Although in her lifetime she published only one collection of poems, The Colossus, and one novel, The Bell Jar, the posthumous publication of the magnificent poems of Ariel, of her edgy and finely crafted stories and sketches, and of her Letters Home and Journals have consolidated her position as one of her age’s most important and influential writers. As Marjorie Perloff puts it: ‘This is a body of work quite unprecedented in twentieth-century American poetry.’1

   From its first appearance, Plath’s writing has remained constantly in print on both sides of the Atlantic and in numerous other countries in translated editions. The Plath catalogue continues to expand, with recent unabridged editions of the Journals and a new ‘restored’ edition of Ariel offering further material for readers to consider. From the outset, her work has been accompanied by a plethora of scholarly responses and interpretations and each new Plath edition stimulates yet more. The first aim of The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath is to offer new readers an accessible, authoritative and comprehensive guide to Plath’s writing. The second is to provide an incisive and insightful overview of key tendencies and developments in Plath criticism. This is an immense and varied field. I have tried in the discussions that follow to offer fair summaries of distinct and valuable perspectives and to present a representative range of critical voices. In my analyses both of the primary work and of the secondary criticism, it has been necessary to be selective. In the case of the latter, the guide to further reading which closes the book offers a list of critical resources that students who wish to continue their studies independently can pursue. In the case of the former, the aim of this Introduction has been to cover as wide a range of poems and stories as possible, while reserving sufficient space to address key texts in the detail they deserve. Inevitably, there are poems that this introductory book has not had space to consider or to read as fully as the poems themselves demand. Nevertheless, I hope that the examples, arguments and resources that are included will inform and inspire readers’ own further readings and evaluations of a range of additional works.

   The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath begins with an overview of Plath’s life and of the literary and historical contexts in which her work was produced and read (Chapters 1 and 2). The next three chapters assess the early poetry, Ariel and later poems, and The Bell Jar and other prose in some detail. Chapter 6 examines the background and substance of Plath’s Letters Home and Journals, while the final chapter surveys biographies of Plath and provides an analysis of the critical reception of her work.

   Inevitably, an Introduction such as this owes a debt to the many excellent scholars who have gone before. Their contributions to Plath studies and to my own understanding of the field are acknowledged throughout the book. Finally, this book is intended as an introduction for students and general readers of Plath and is conceived as a supplement to the primary texts. This Introduction aims to open out Plath’s writing to nuanced and informed interpretation, not to replace a close reading of her own words.


Thanks to Ray Ryan, Maartje Scheltens and Libby Willis of Cambridge University Press and to colleagues in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. I have had the privilege at various times of working with Plath scholars Tracy Brain, Tim Kendall and Robin Peel, and I acknowledge the influence of their work here. Final thanks, again, to Neil, Jacob, Freya and Keziah.

Abbreviations and textual note

Unless otherwise indicated, poems discussed in this volume are from Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber; New York: Harper & Row, 1981). References to this and other primary sources are to the English editions.

A Rest. Sylvia Plath, Ariel: The Restored Edition, ed. Frieda Hughes (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).
Bib Stephen Tabor, Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography (London: Mansell; Westport, CT: Meckler, 1987).
BJ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London: Heinemann, 1963 (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas); London: Faber and Faber, 1966; New York: Harper & Row, 1971 (as Sylvia Plath)).
BL Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters (London: Faber and Faber; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
CP Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber and Faber; New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
J Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950–1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000); The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (New York: Anchor, 2000).
J Abr. Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough (New York: Dial, 1982) (abridged edition).
JP Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (London: Faber and Faber, 1977; New York: Harper & Row, 1979).
LH Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963, ed. Aurelia Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1975; London: Faber and Faber, 1976).
LTH Ted Hughes, Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid (London: Faber and Faber, 2007; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).
PS Peter Orr, ed., The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966).
WP Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, ed. William Scammell (London: Faber and Faber, 1994).
WT Sylvia Plath, Winter Trees (London: Faber and Faber, 1971; New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

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