Romancing Suicide: A Dynamic Personality Anaylsis of Sylvia Plath

ROMANCING SUICIDE

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romancing Suicide:

A Dynamic Personality Anaylsis

of Sylvia Plath

Tiffany M.

Personality Development

          Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932.  Although she was born during the Great Depression, Plath was born into a comfortable, middle class family.  Tragedy struck a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birth when her father died of complication of his foot amputation due to diabetes.  In addition, she had a rather ambivalent relationships with her mother throughout her childhood and early adulthood.  Despite her familial troubles, Sylvia Plath was a creative prodigy, publishing her first poem in the Boston Herald at the age of eight.  Her drive brought her great success.  She attended Brown University and gained a prestigious position as a guest editor at Mademoiselle Magazine in New York City where she stayed a month.  When she returned home, Plath learned she had been rejected by Harvard’s summer writing program.  After this failure and New York falling short of her expectations, she became disenchanted with herself and the world around her.  As a result, she attempted suicide by crawling underneath her home and overdosing on sleeping medication, not to be found until several days later.  She was committed to McLean Hospital and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  Olivia Higgins Prouty, her benefactor that paid for Smith, also paid for her stay at McLean.

Once Plath recovered, she graduated with honors from Smith in 1955.  She went on to win the Fullbright Scholarship and continued her schooling at Newnham College, University of Cambridge’s women’s only sister institution.  It was there that she met her future husband, Ted Hughes, and they were married in 1956 after a brief relationship.  The couple spent the next two years in the United States.  Plath taught at her alma mater, Smith University during this time and Hughes continued in his ambition to be a freelance writer.  When they had discovered Plath’s pregnancy, they returned to the United Kingdom.  She had her daughter, Freida in 1960, but suffered a miscarriage the following year.  It consumed her until she bore her second child, Nicholas in 1962.

Sylvia Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes had always been intense.  She described their first encounter in her journal as a battle.  He kissed her and she drew blood.  And a battle it was.  They seemingly fought in a way over every detail.  In the US, Hughes continued his career as a freelance writer and Plath accepted a teaching position.  When her fame overshadowed him, Hughes made the decision to return to London upon confirming her pregnancy.  Hughes also saw that she would remain domesticated.  It ended in 1962, shortly after the birth of their son.  Hughes had found to new love, Plath’s good friend, Assia Gutmann Wevill.  The battle had ended, and Plath lost it all.

The next year was certainly the hardest year of her life.  She was left alone to care for her children in London with very little money and the one of the harshest winter’s ever recorded.  She succumbed to physical and mental illness.  In addition, she had two small children which left her with little time to write.  She would sometimes wake in the early morning hours to write out her flight of ideas.  But it all proved to be too much for her.  On February 11, 1963, she set out snacks for her children, sealed off the rooms with wet cloths, and asphyxiated herself by putting her head into a gas oven.

Despite, her life’s tragic ending, she saw great career success during her life.  Plath created over 200 pieces during her short lived career.  Her most famous works were “Ariel”, “The Colossus”, and “The Bell Jar”.  She was a profound influence on the literary world and the women’s movement.  Even today, she remains as a prominent literary figure and her works and life are still studied.

In the psychoanalytic theory, Sylvia Plath could be described as having developed certain aspects of her dramatic personality though her experience.  Plath suggests an Electra Complex in her very own writings, namely, “Electra on Azalea’s Path” and “The Beekeeper’s Daughter”.  There was not enough time for her to develop a healthy father-daughter relationship.  This caused the anger toward her mother but no object transference to her father.  Therefore, she was fixated on the image of her father and made the attempt at resolving it by becoming a wife and mother.  However, the fixation remained.

In order to cope with her own condition, Sylvia Plath developed several defense mechanisms.    First and foremost, she obviously cultivated sublimation and creatively expressed herself through her writing.  As mentioned in her biographical synopsis, she was a confessional poet and pulled from her own experience and emotions to create her art.  It was her creativity that created her success but unfortunately could not prevent her ultimate demise.  Also, she identified with certain figures in her life as replacements for others.  In her  psuedo-autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar”, she refers to a girl named Doreen as being a maternal figure.  Through her work, we can identify Ted Hughes, her husband, as her father figure.  That being said, there was a certain amount of animosity toward his departure.  Plath subconsciously compared his betrayal to her father’s symbolic betrayal in that they both “left” her.  It was clear that she was angry with her father but seemed to have directed it toward Ted Hughes.  Therefore, she used  displacement instead of confronting her emotions directly.

Freud would describe Plath as having a masculinity complex.  This is best exampled by her portrayal of Ester in “The Bell Jar”.  It seems clear that Plath was faced with a difficult choice.  She could either be lonely and have a successful career or place her aspirations aside and succumb to domestic life.  Instead of making a choice, she aspired to have both.  Society at the time would’ve agreed Freud, and made it known to Plath.  Even her own mother, who had been accustomed to traditional women’s roles, encouraged Plath to pursue a secretarial path.  This was the norm in American society between the years of 1932 and 1963.  Women didn’t see major societal breakthroughs for equality until later in the 1960’s.

Jung would have concluded that Sylvia Plath did not have a fully integrated self.  Firstly, her persona was too different from her actual self.  Plath strove to project a happy, bubbly image of herself and hid the rest of what she considered to be unacceptable qualities.  Her shadow was only expressed and acknowledged in her writing.  Linda Wagner-Martin, the sole biographer of Sylvia Plath, writes of her and Hughes’ experience with the Anima / Animus.  “They spent the night at his second-floor flat on Rugby Street in London, reciting poetry, making love, finding their alter ego in each other.” (Wagner-Martin, 1987.)  Simply put, they were falling in love with each other.  But the love didn’t last.  In Jungian theory, neither developed the projection into their own consciousness.  Plath had been rejected by Hughes, as Hughes had an extramarital affair with Assia Wevill, leading to their separation.  Some believe that rejection was symbolic of her own rejection of herself.

There is much debate about the possible outcome of Sylvia Plath’s Myer’s-Brigg’s Type Indicator (MBTI) result.  However, most would agree that it comes down between Introverted-Intuition-Feeling-Judging (INFJ) and Introverted-Intuition-Feeling-Perceiving (INFP).  Clearly, Plath had an indisputable introverted quality.  She spent much time secluded away from people, intensely writing about her internal experience, which points to a feeling personality.  The surrealism and lucidity of her work indicates an intuitive personality instead of sensing, which is based on the tangible senses to take in information from the world around oneself.

Adler would have suggested that Plath suffered personality dysfunction resulting from incidents in her childhood.  In his typology, he also would’ve deemed her a getting type; dependent, and subject to depressive episodes, also typical of a woman.   All of this development is contingent upon her relationship with her parents.  Plath was a first born, and according to Adler, she had a deficit in parental attention which may have been the cause of her neuroticism.  Her father passed when she was young and the relationship with her mother was lacking.  Her mother was often absent due to her employment in order to support her family.  Plath admitted in her journals and to her therapist that she hated her mother.  In a way, she was emotionally neglected, creating dependence and desire for pampering.

Research on first children supports some of Alder’s theories.  Parental anxiety and criticism leads to children’s lifelong habits and views of themselves.  Therefore, first born’s have the inability to adequately set realistic goals in their work and development.  This could be the cause of Plath’s desire for success in her career and home life.  The result was her extreme criticism of even the slightest failure, namely her breakdown after she was rejected from Harvard’s summer writing program.  This lead into later depression over her failing marriage and anxiety when balancing her career and her family.  However, Plath had a social interest in advancing women’s roles beyond the home in society.  “Equality between men and women is essential for success in the task of love.” (Kaplan, 2008, pg. 115.)  Hughes had left her behind to care for the children, treating her as a lesser partner in the relationship and viewed her as a lesser in their career field.

Although Hughes regarded her as unequal, this was far from the truth.  In Erikson’s model, Plath had resolved industry vs. inferiority.  She excelled in her schooling and career.  However, most other life conflict remained unresolved.  Plath struggled with her identity, sexuality, and relationships.  In “The Bell Jar”, her character Ester attempts to confront these issues by losing her virginity outside of marriage and thus challenging society’s double standard on chastity.  Her problems still remained, including her identity crisis surrounding her choice between career and family and the resulting issues in her domestic life.

In Allport’s theory, we can infer several central traits important to Sylvia Plath’s personality through her writing and observed behavior.  Plath was studious, intelligent, emotional, troubled and searching.  This traits extended into all aspects of her life, so much that she could not be considered to have a normal, unified adult personality.  She lacked a sense of self apart from her achievements, emotional security, and realistic perception.

A biological component to Plath’s personality is evident in her behavioral, familial, and personal history.  Anxiety and dysfunction is genetically evident.  Plath’s father death resulted from the belief he was suffering from lung cancer like his friend.  He refused to seek treatment until his undiagnosed diabetes caused him to lose his foot, and then his life.  Plath too refused treatment for her mental illness, as did her son decades later.  Nicholas Hughes took his own life in March 2009, nearly five decades after his mother after “battling with depression for some time.” (Hoyle, 2009.)  Also, her daughter Frieda had noted struggles with depression.  This indicates there was a hereditary predisposition toward mood problems and suicidal tendencies.  In neurological studies, this may there was a inherited malfunction in the brain, specifically low levels of dopamine and an over active frontal lobe in the right hemisphere.

Plath also possessed traits found in the evolutionary perspective.  Despite her lack of self-preservation, she sought to protect her young by sealing them off from the carbon monoxide and provided food for them.  She made valiant attempts at keeping her family together by attempting to reconcile with Hughes, despite his infidelity.  This proves that she was hard wired for long term mating, regardless of her dysfunctional attachment style.  This was also a result of a societal learning.  During her upbringing, society deemed that a woman marry and have a family.  She did just that, despite her longing for her career.

Eysenck’s PEN model would personify Sylvia Plath as melancholic.  This is characterized by low extraversion, otherwise meaning she possesses a weak nervous system that is incapable of tolerating intense stimuli.  In addition, she also is emotionally sensitive which gives her a high score on the neurosis measure.  Finally, Plath is very creative and deviated from social norms in that time period, indicating high psychoticism.

Skinner would have asserted that Sylvia Plath’s behaviors and therefore personality were learned qualities.  Surely, her creative, career, and scholastic success were products of reinforcement.  Her achievements brought her rewards, whether monetary endowments such as her scholarships and grants or less tangible things such as notoriety.  She fed her illness through negative reinforcement by succumbing to it as a means to withdraw from the world she had become so disenchanted and disappointed with.  This led her into the mental institution where she underwent shock therapy.  That produced unfavorable results.  Instead of getting better, she became worse and began to distrust the mental health community.  This accounted for her discontinuance and reluctance to seek further treatment during episodes.  Skinner would also have postulated that Plath’s suicide was learned from her father, who seemingly gave up on life.  Rather than endure the hardships, Plath simply gave up in a similar fashion.  In addition, Plath gave up on her family, just as Hughes did.  It provided observational behavior for her actions.  She generalized the aforementioned situations as similar enough to one another to justify her actions.

Rogers would have greatly disagreed with other theories.  In the humanistic perspective, Plath would’ve been thought to have greatly deviated from her internal experience due to external interference, creating her dysfunction.  This interference had stemmed from her mother, Hughes, and society at large.  All of these entities demanded that she put her own desire on the wayside in order to lead a “fulfilling” life as a housewife, a mother, and if she would have liked, a secretary.  However, she censored too much of her inner experience, as society demanded of a lady.  She clearly did not trust herself as the master of her own existence, as noted by her original spiraling in “The Bell Jar”.  And worse, she was deprived of unconditional positive regard, as seen her work, “Ariel” when she writes, “Does no one love me?” (Plath, 2007.)  This lack of affection stems out into all aspects of personality, creating a global dysfunction.

Maslow would have predicted her eventual collapse through his hierarchy of needs.  Beginning from the top, Plath was deprived of her need for self-actualization.  She was denied the ability to reach her full potential in any aspect of her life, especially in her career.  Her esteem was desperately in need of attention, since she retained unrealistic goals for herself.  She expected all the world had promised her; a beautiful, loving husband, a healthy wonderful family, and a vibrant career.  Instead, she consistently fell short and became disillusioned.  Plath’s love need was never fulfilled.  She lacked parental love and later in life was abandoned by her husband.  In her last year, her basic needs began to decay.  With her husband gone, she was left alone to be the sole caretaker and breadwinner for the family.  Her security vanished during the harsh winter of 1962 – 63 when her pipes froze and her assets dwindled.  This led to her physiological needs, as her food and water supply ran low.  In the end, she was depressed, desperate, and crazed.  She crumbled under the weight of the deficit in her needs.

 

References

Chung, S. (n.d.). The Electra Complex in Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s Poems. Unknown. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from 140.122.100.145/ntnuj/j53/j532hs-6.pdf

Cooper, B. (n.d.). Sylvia Plath and the depression continuum. NCBI. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539515/

Electra complex. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electra_complex

Hamilton, I. (1987, October 25). The Tatty Wreckage of Her Life. The New York Times. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/25/books/the-tatty-wreckage-of-her-life.html?

 

Kaplan. (2008). Past and Present Views on Personality. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Hoyle, B. (2009, March 28).  Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s son commits suicide . Times Online. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5956380.ece

Newnham College, Cambridge. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newnham_College,_Cambridge

Plath, S. (2005). The Bell Jar. New York: Harper Perennial.

Plath, S. (2005). The Bell Jar. New York: Harper Perennial.

Sexton, T. (2007, July 19). My Two Dads: Sylvia Plath and the Electra Complex – Associated Content – associatedcontent.com. Associated Content. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/312207/my_two_dads_sylvia_plath_and_the_electr

Sylvia Plath – Typology Central. (2007, October 1). Typology Central. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www.typologycentral.com/forums/popular-culture-type/2014-sylvia-plath.html

Sylvia Plath. (n.d.). Sul sentiero dell’azalea. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://syvvi.wordpress.com/in-inglese/

Sylvia Plath. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath

13 thoughts on “Romancing Suicide: A Dynamic Personality Anaylsis of Sylvia Plath

  1. Wow! You’ve written a thesis here. Interestingly, I just only got my courage up to read “The Bell Jar” about a month ago, and then got so triggered that I was sorry to have done so. These summaries are very useful. Thank you!

  2. I have read ‘The Bell Jar’ .Every once in a while I read a piece of literature that sounds like I wrote it,only I can’t remember.The author sounds so harrowingly like me,I can identify patterns of thought and intellectual insight so much like my own I wish I had an opportunity to meet these people.in reading their works I get to finally definitions of my personality and mental framework that had remained vague and obscure in the shadows of my intellect.Hence my interest in an analysis of Plath’s personality.’The unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath’ offer much insight into Plath’s life.

    • I’ve been slowly going through the “Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath”. It’s a little tough for me to get through for a number of reasons. First, Ted Hughes had editorial rights on the release of her journals. I have a difficult time believing that he wouldn’t have asserted a little editorial license to the text.

      And second, there is a lot of challenges that she faced as a woman that are no longer applicable in modern society. One of her main struggles was maintaining the status of a “housewife” and intentionally taking a backseat to Ted, while desperately wanting to advance her own career. Today, women are encouraged to “have it all”. Women face a different struggle. While she was tortured by her choices, women today are challenged to be Wonder Women who can have it all and do it all. It’s a hard thing for me to wrap my head around.

      That second part really had a significant influence on her, as I had mentioned in the essay. That’s where I have the most difficulty relating. It’s completely evident in her social context, but not so much today. I often find myself praising her for forging the path for women like me. And I also find myself begging for her to hold on, just hold on a little longer and keep writing for that revolutionary change in society. If she could come back and visit for one day, she would be amazed.

      I wrote this three years ago when I was working on college. Three years is a long time. I could draw so many similarities between her and I at that point in time. Her issues with her parents. Her struggle with mental health disorder, which if you read her journal can clearly be identified as bipolar disorder.

      She had her ups, which she really just detailed as being “well”. More clearly her downs. She attempted to take her life several times, and eventually she succeeded. I have to wonder what would have happened had someone walked in on her only to find her unconscious.

  3. Pingback: The Vice Magazine suicide spread | Atavic Poetry

  4. I remember going through the same “feelings” (in depression you have a void of feelings and it is inescapable). instead of a bell jar i felt i was in outer space with no flow of thought or feeling to fill the void and my empty insides were dry to the point of physical pain. The Bell Jar is just where I was but put in a different concept. Same girl dashed hopes lost scholarship no desire for children to be brought into this world. I’m INTJ BTW. I’m still depressed.

  5. This was a fresh, enlightening look at the poet I always considered so talented (and messed up to have left her children like that). My own struggle to keep up my art (of words) on the blog has given me more sympathy for her.

    • Thanks! Obviously, this is a study I wrote in college for a class. I just finished, “The Bell Jar”. In the last few years, I tried to read her journals, but it’s actually really difficult. It’s not so much because of where I identify, but more where I don’t. She was a woman ahead of her time, and she battled herself due to societal oppression I’ve never truly experienced. I can understand it, but I can never truly appreciate her position. She was the modern woman when that kind of woman was shunned, divorced, struggling to succeed in her career and as a single mother. Worse than all of that, she suffered with a mental health condition in silence, lest she seek treatment and lose everything.

      I have a great deal of admiration for her. And sadness too, because I really feel like if she could have just hung in there a few years longer, things would have changed. She could have had a greater hand at changing society for women’s liberation. She could have left an incredible legacy. Instead, all we have is a cautionary tale and a mournful history.

        • I apologize it took a few days to get back around. My phone ate the first version of this reply, and I haven’t been back to my own comment section since.

          The original article was a paper I wrote in college. I can’t remember for what class though, but I do know it was relevant to a kind of psychological case study. I put a number of my papers up, mostly because I’m a psychology nut. I never really expected anyone to take to them, though.

          Thanks for your comments! And I’m thrilled to be included in your community!

  6. Thx for the follow, btw. =)

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