If I had to count the number of inappropriate jokes I’ve heard about Sylvia Plath, I’d probably be much better at maths. Buzzwords: stuck, head, oven. Something about angst. Suicide hahaha! Publicly admitting to being a Plath reader attracts a certain kind of raised eyebrow, half-concerned, half-mocking. When I was sixteen, I discovered her work – I read Ariel underneath my desk while a teacher droned on about calculating compound interest on equity shares.
Like many girls, I was fascinated by the incisive yet deeply emotional way in which Plath investigated her own life and the things that happened to her. It was easier to call it infatuation because that assumes that my embarrassing, guilt-filled, overly intense fandom would fade over the years – but somehow, each time, Plath’s writing leaves me awed afresh. I’m learning to stop being embarrassed.
Not diminished by sadness
What does it mean to grow out of literature? As I grew out of Harry Potter – now part of a troubled legacy thanks to JK Rowling’s problematic position on transwomen – I got to the point where the immense role it played in my childhood is something I reminisce. It’s uncomplicated – a reread every few years, watching the movies sequentially with my dad.
When I read The Bell Jar for the first time, it felt like something I didn’t know I had been looking for. It wasn’t an easy read – it never is. Plath’s work is both sapping and revitalising to me. It’s something I come back to when I don’t know what I’m looking for anymore. Reading it is a bodily experience.
Plath’s descriptions of sadness evoke sympathetic reactions in me, even though I read them a world away. For example, in a poem titled “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, Plath writes of the moon as something that is “White as a knuckle and terribly upset,” and “quiet/ With the O-gape of complete despair”. In the world of this poem, the moon, despite her sadnesses, is a “face in its own right”.
In her writing, Plath seems to put forward an image of womanhood as three-dimensional and multifaceted – something that is not diminished by sadness. The Bell Jar too, in many ways, is about experiencing the world as a person containing multitudes – as a person with a body, as a woman, as a young person, as a writer, as someone learning how to live.
“...and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat,” says Esther in the opening pages. The Bell Jar, in its explorations of mundanity and extraordinariness, narrates a summer that turned sour – it tracks the process of grappling with the trappings of growing up and what the world infuses into a young woman.
In an article for Nylon, Naomi Elias writes about popular culture’s distilled idea of “the type of girl who reads The Bell Jar” – the sad, angry girl, staring out of a window, contemplative and melancholic. I’ve noticed that in portrayals of girls who read Sylvia Plath, their choice of literature often serves to emphasise how different they are from other girls – how differently they perform their womanhood.
The happy, bubbly uncomplicated girl laughing with her bevy of friends is not the one who reads Plath. Like most tropes, the dichotomy of the happy cheerleader and the dark intellectual is a false one. It is ironic that Plath’s readers are banished to one side of a binary. She wrote in her journals:
“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 can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”
So much about living as the person you are – as a woman or otherwise – is limiting. And that is something that is worth grieving. Elias condemns the placement of The Bell Jar exclusively into the realm of female sadness, and that is a condemnation I agree with – but it says something that Plath’s work – her sadness – resonates with so many. Plath’s inscriptions seem to resonate with too many people for them to be dismissed or made light of.
A form of resistance
In her poem “the lost women” Lucille Clifton engages with the what-ifs of a different world. She asks questions of the world she lives in – “where are my gangs,/ my teams, my mislaid sisters?/ all the women who could have known me,/ where in the world are their names?”. This poem grieves a kind of kinship that is only afforded by men.
We often think of grief as a feeling that comes from losing something you have loved and cherished. But sometimes, the object of grief is the unfairness and injustice of never having had a thing in the first place. Sadness, in this way, becomes everyday, monotonous. Sadness is spectral in women’s lives.
Like the cadaver-ghost Esther dreams of, sadness floats around, like fumes, translucent and whispering. The debts owed to womanhood enter our bodies like car-fumes and dust, a thin film of grief settled in our lungs. “I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done,” says Esther after being forced to undergo shock therapy for her depression. The unfairness of being punished for something so far out of your control manifests itself as sadness.
An Instagram artist named Audrey Wollen has conceptualised a theory called Sad Girl Theory. She posits that female sadness is a form of political resistance. Her theory pivots around the fact that mainstream feminism makes it seem that being a woman is a purely positive experience.
Wollen says, “I feel like girls are being set up: if we don’t feel overjoyed about being a girl, we are failing at our own empowerment…Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is – it is unimaginably painful – and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment”.
Sadness, like anger, fuels revolution. The knots in your stomach, the nagging feeling that something’s wrong, is a step closer to fixing it. The revolution begins in our bedrooms with our sadness. To feel is an active verb.
A mediation of ‘if’s
The emotions of women have often been seen as passive and unworthy. To reframe the legitimate sadness of women as something deliberate, active and important, necessitates a rethinking of what we consider weak and strong. Sadness is an act that does something – something important. It is, Wollen says (seemingly borrowing from Luce Irigaray, feminist theorist extraordinaire), something that can be used to jam the machinery. The intellectual machinery behind how we think of advocacy for the female condition favours discarding the sadness of women for something more hardcore.
But I don’t think that sadness and strength are the absolute antitheses of each other. The myth that sadness makes you stronger is a harmful one. Horrific and exhausting, especially when it’s structural – in the inevitability of sadness lies its urgency. In her poem “Stings”, Plath writes, “They thought death was worth it, but I/ have a self to recover, a queen.”
Here, sadness becomes an acknowledgement of what has been lost – and what must be recovered. It is a recognition of what hurts you, what has been taken from you, and what could have been yours. It is a mediation of ifs – what if I was born somewhere else, in a different body, in a different family, as someone else. For a woman to write about her sadness, unabashedly and unapologetically, is hardcore.
In “Lady Lazarus”, which is arguably one of Plath’s most famous poems, she details her suicide attempts. Lines often quoted from this poem are “Dying/ Is an art like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” People use these lines as proof of Plath’s hysteria, of the romantic nature of her sadness – they often forget about the lines that come right after. “I do it so it feels like hell/ I do it so it feels real”. In these lines, Plath posits her sadness and her mental health issues as real, with tangible and horrific effects.
Writing is a double recognition. To write about sadness is to believe that your feelings are legitimate, and to say it loudly for anyone who cares to listen. To write is to advocate for yourself. I am not advocating for female sadness, but I am advocating for it to be taken seriously, personally, and structurally.
I’m advocating for sad poems, as many as you need to write – for treating sadness as something to investigate and learn from – as something important. The bell jar of female sadness is one that is always one that is supposed to revolve around men. Is it possibly an act of revolution for your sadness to be selfish? Is it not inherently un-patriarchal to say I am being failed over and over by the world, and I will not bury that truth anymore?
I look at sadness as a step towards fixing the world – as a recognition that the world is messed up and that is not your fault. Perhaps, reading, too, is an act of fixing your own loneliness.
The internet and popular culture love a good, tragic woman – another one for the dank memes! We love laughing at the crazy, sad lady who died so absurdly, so glamorously. Sometimes, I am scared to tell people that Sylvia Plath is one of my favourite poets. I often want to follow it up with I’m not like the others, I promise! I’m not a suicide risk, I can be happy! Sometimes, I am ashamed of my own sadness.
In these times, I go back to the poems I inhaled at sixteen – they never left my body, but sometimes, I forget that. I forget what it feels like to feel seen and understood, even when I’m alone. When I wish I had grown out of Plath, out of my angst, I remind myself how good it feels to let myself feel my sadness. Plath’s bravery in confronting the beasts of her mind helps me figure out my own sadnesses, my own losses – it helps me treat them with respect because she did.
When I was sixteen, reading Plath made me feel like my monstrous, unidentifiable feelings, the sadnesses I couldn’t grasp, suddenly had a name. I learned to externalise the ugly parts of my feelings if only to understand them for myself. Sad girls might be intense, bitter, and overly obsessed with the moon, but at least we aren’t rotting inside from repression. When we joke about Sylvia Plath, I keep wondering why we keep thinking of her sadness.
Why are we so drawn to the tragedies of women – what do our fascinations say about our own sadness? When is it that the world decides that sadness is less useful – less becoming, less powerful – than anything else? The process of growing out of teenage girlhood and into respectable adulthood is one of taking your silly hysteria and stuffing it into the rusting cupboards of your body – until it destroys you from the inside out. Vulnerability goes out of style at some point – but if you need a refresher, I’ll send you some of my favourite poems.