In some ways, we, the readers, are left to judge not only Plath’s action, but to evaluate the whole literary and cultural tradition that spawned her. First, there was Eliot’s The Waste Land, and then there were several decades during which the best and brightest had only the most depressing things to say about life and the human condition. We were led from Prufrock to Norman Mailer’s main character in An American Dream, a novel in which a man stabs his wife. Indeed, students of modern American literature often ask, “When can we read something more cheerful?” Coupled with this philosophical point-of-view was the phenomenon of the stream-of-consciousness narrative, a technique created by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and used extensively by William Faulkner, three of the great writers of this era. It is no small accident that Plath was studying “the double” in Joyce’s work as part of her honors program at Smith, for she mentions Joyce often in her journals and in her work.
What is important, for evaluating this whole literary tradition — from Eliot on — and important to a serious discussion of the problem of suicide, is why so many of the bright, young, classical school-of-thought students were more interested in Joyce and Eliot than they were in Woolf and Faulkner. And this is where we must place Plath, for certainly, even if she does not mention Eliot at length, her bell jar image is the direct descendant of his waste land; in relation to our contemporary polluted world, we now get clear air only within a bell dome.
In Woolf and Faulkner, the sensitive reader can find reasons to live as well as reasons to die. There is Septimus Smith (a suicide) in Mrs. Dalloway and Quentin Compson (a suicide) in The Sound and the Fury, but there is also Sally Seton and Mrs. Ramsey (lovers of life) in Woolf, and there is Dilsey and Dewey Dell, Addie Bundren, and Lena Grove and Isaac (all lovers of life) in Faulkner. We might conclude, therefore, that Plath either did not wish to hear, or did not hear, for some reason, the voices that said, “Live, live!”
There exists a sad quote from Plath’s journals of the Boston period, 1958-59: “Take a lesson from Ted. He works and works. Rewrites, struggles, loses himself. I must work for independence. Make him proud. Keep my sorrows and despairs to myself. Work and work for self-respect. Study language, read avidly. Work.” She wishes to take a lesson from another writer, and her desire to find a good role model is hampered by the complexity of the fact that she is married to Ted Hughes, another poet. She desires independence and self-respect, which she deserved, but side by side with that wish is a greater desire to make her husband proud. Thus, her compulsion is to work — for someone else’s approval. In this single quotation, we can see a driven, lost human being in conflict. Plath searches for order only in books and work. Did she ever think that she might try to live, to exist, to wander down the road of life like Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August?
No wonder the paths of so many gifted writers of this period led to the mental hospital. And it should be noted here that both Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hannah Green’s (also a pseudonym for Joanne Greenberg) I Never Promised You a Rose Garden were published in 1963, the year in which The Bell Jar was published — and yet, of the three writers, only Plath committed suicide. It was due — at least in part — to Plath’s work and her dramatic end that the early women’s liberation movements in the United States were spawned. This led to a great surge of literary writing by women, a fact that should lead us to a serious contemplation of the major ideas of the era that preceded the new “freedoms” for women because only in a clearer understanding of that recent history will we avoid another time of tragedies for the Sylvia Plaths of the future.
In regard to this last issue, it is appropriate to look at the ethics of suicide. Perhaps it is even a time to reread Aquinas on “The Sin of Suicide” because we should consider whether or not it was “wrong” of Plath to take her own life and leave two very young children in the world without a mother. Is it not ironic that Plath did to her own children what she was so damaged by in her own life — the loss of a parent at a tender age? And last, how are we to judge a woman who bitterly criticized her mother and idolized her father, yet who chose the self-destructive path of the father (and Otto Plath, although not a suicide, certainly contributed to his early death, as is clear from all accounts, because he refused to seek early medical treatment for diabetes) and then, in the end, did to her husband just precisely what her father had done to her mother? Indeed, it is ironic that in Plath’s poem “Daddy,” she foreshadowed how she herself would end her life. In this poem, she identifies her father as a Nazi figure and herself as a Jew. “I thought every German was you,” she says, referring to her father. She then goes on to describe an engine “chuffing” her “like a Jew” off to Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen. Sharply foreboding in the next sentence, she writes, “I may be a bit of a Jew.” Here, it is time for us to recall how Plath died: she gassed herself. It is as if she could not escape some almost foreordained doom for herself. This is indeed some kind of reverse, perverse, and hostile “poetic” justice. We can conclude, even in our sympathies for Plath, that she was wrong, which does not mean that we are merely uncomfortable with her suicide, or that we only mourn. We can praise her brilliant work, and we can say, yes, she was a very good writer, and we can stand in awe of her complex, and intriguing, character. (She did have an authentic voice, as Ted Hughes notes in his introduction to her journals.) And we can continue to read her works and ponder over her too. But we can also criticize her for her last act, even if it was her “right” to do it.
In this criticism of Plath’s ethics, we might note Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Art of Suicide.” Oates talks of “the suicide who is transfixed by metaphor,” an idea that certainly applies to Plath, who often seemed to get her poetic visions and insights mixed up with her real-life problems. Was part of Plath’s problem her sense of how good a poet she could be? Seemingly, she had little humility; she thought that she should not be bound, like other human beings, to cleaning up baby puke. But did she become so lost in her stream-of-consciousness poetic state that she was not able to come back to reality in order to deal with the mundane? Indeed, the mystic state of creativity is a realm where one is, in some ways, disoriented, like the absent-minded professor, but still, at the same time, one’s creativity is clear and focused. It was this non-creative world that Plath could not deal with, especially after a period of intense output; these periods occurred at the end of her life, just as they did after her periods of success before her suicide attempt. It was as if Plath had post-partum depression from finishing her work, or couldn’t deal with the dullness of life after a great outpouring of creativity.
Oates says that “the suicide who deliberates over his act . . . rejects our human condition of finitude . . . his self-destruction is a disavowal, in a sense, of what it means to be human.” Suicide is a denial of the mystery of life, a rejection of the future, whatever the future might hold. For whatever might lie ahead, human beings have a duty to affirm life, to give up notions of total human control. We must, as Camus’ Sisyphus did, descend the mountain with joy and continue with our tasks and our struggles. Suicide seems as though one is taking control of destiny, and yet one is not. Suicide, as Oates says, ends only in “deadness,” for suicide is not some kind of creation. Plath’s last poem was not a poem at all. And one of Plath’s legacies to us is her last negative statement.
Like Camus’ absurd hero, Plath should have realized that life is a balance between hope and despair, between control and fate. Those who defend Plath’s suicide by saying that she did not really mean to kill herself because a nurse was supposed to arrive on time to save her are also defending Plath’s lack of a clear philosophy. Part of her life was a frenzied attempt to be in total control as besuits her German heritage, and part of her life was a total giving in to fate. Was Plath laboring under the illusion of Kant’s categorical imperative, where all important moral points are matters of black and white? What absolute universal law is there that says if a creative soul is to live, the fates will make sure that they do? Plath never learned what was her responsibility to control, and every human being should accept some things as being beyond his or her control. We can be sorry for Plath, but we do not have to accept her point-of-view. Life, as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man says, is to be lived — not controlled. And living, of course, means exerting some control, sometimes much of the time. Despite all of Plath’s discipline in her studies and her writing, she was not so disciplined in her life. Or perhaps she was just inept, or immature, at the art of living.
Interestingly, if Plath’s last word to us was very dark, since that time women have gone on to say much more positive things. We can only wish that Plath herself might be here to comment on the really fine works of fiction from such writers as Oates, Mary Gordon, Gail Godwin, Joanne Greenberg, Alice Walker, and now a whole generation of women. Perhaps Plath’s The Bell Jar, however slight a novel as it might be in the future, and as judged against those works that grew out of it and away from it, was really the watershed. And Plath’s tragic suicide was the waste land from which contemporary women have, and will, free themselves.
In conclusion, we must go forward. There is no going back — to “Daddy” or to childish ways. Maybe not even back to Hamlet-like equivocation or the American Dream — intellectual indulgences that we cannot afford in the modern atomic world. In this forward movement to positive personal and social goals, women must play a key role. But it remains to be seen whether the creative works of women will be more nurturing and life-oriented as befits their biological role, and whether Plath will be remembered as a woman who was torn by pessimistic, Nietzschean male philosophy, as a woman whose full female identity was never developed. In the long tradition from Sappho to Simone de Beauvoir and current liberated women artists, was the non-motivated destructiveness of Plath, turned by illness on herself, an aberration?
Finally, on the ethics of suicide, it must be noted that suicide is an act, a definite act with very final consequences. Therefore, this act must be looked at differently from some other issues of modern freedoms, or even ideas surrounding the right to die with dignity. Proper, timely death can be an affirmation of the life process. These are the distinctions that the nurturers, and all human beings, must make. If life cannot be easily right or wrong, black or white, it can be a process of thoughtful choices that emphasize the compassionate dignity which humans are capable of. Hopefully, then, the reader will have learned from Plath’s art and her life, and thus, her tragedy can be other people’s salvation.