Escape from God: Sylvia Plath’s Journey Through Suicide

On the flight to New York this morning, I was able to read some more from Sylvia Plath’s journals, continuing through her junior year at Smith to her “nervous breakdown.”  I was struck by the transition as the light in this luminescent young woman gradually burns out.  Plath is aware of her changing perspective and sees it as a reflection on the nature of truth.

For a time I was lulled in the arms of a blind optimism with breasts full of champagne and nipples made of caviar.  I thought she was true, and that the true was the beautiful.  But the true is the ugly mixed up everywhere, like a peck of dirt scattered through your life.

Plath, like so many Modernists, doesn’t believe there is a God beyond this world.  Ironically, she continues to call on this God in whom she doesn’t believe, crying out for clarity, vision, and beauty.

God, let me think clearly and brightly; let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences…

She prays in vain, however.  So, she tries to will herself to believe.

Believe in some beneficent force beyond your own limited self.  God, god, god: where are you?  I want you, need you: the belief in you and love and mankind.  You must not seek escape like this.  You must think.

It is unclear to me whether Plath directs these last two sentences at God or herself.  Herself, I think.  She is the one desperately seeking escape – a “return to the womb” (as she expressed it earlier).  She is the one frantically trying to think, to come up with a reason to live.

There is a huge gap in Plath’s journals after these words.  The editor’s note indicates she attempted suicide.  After treatment, she returned to graduate from Smith.  She didn’t keep a journal her senior year.  Her next entries pick up during her post-graduate work.

These later entries reveal a more disjointed, jaded, perhaps resigned perspective.  God makes an appearance – only to note His absence.

God is on vacation with the pure transcendent sun and the searing heat that turns the flawed white body of our love to glass.

Plath went on to produce some masterpieces of poetry and literature (including The Bell Jar), and it is worth noting that she excelled academically even after being aggressively treated with electro-shock.  In her journals, however, she seems to lose (at least temporarily) the ability to engage in deep self-reflection spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually.  She also seems to lose even the glimmer of hope she once had for something (or Someone) eternal.

“SYLVIA PLATH” from T. Shahrizan T. Mustapha in Caricatures

16 thoughts on “Escape from God: Sylvia Plath’s Journey Through Suicide

    • I was drawn to Plath while exploring the relationship of creativity and mental illness. She is a poetic genius and had a very disturbed mind. I enjoyed reading her early journals – through her first suicide attempt – but don’t think I’ll go further. They become too bleak after that.

  1. I think many people struggle with a good God that allows bad things to happen. Therefore when the bad continues, the hope and God get smaller or non-existent. Personally, I think many people are confused about God and religion and if they studied it or truly looked into it they might find a little peace or understanding.

  2. I love the way you write – it’s lyrical and well-thought out . I also enjoy getting glimpses into works of art and bodies of work that I might never have come across if it wasn’t for your blog. I’m now following you looking for glimpses of culture!

  3. This was very hard for me to read, emotionally. Her depression sounds so familiar. It is truly tragic she could not find, or did not have available, a treatment to make her stable.
    I’ve heard it put forward that people with mood disorders are more creative. I’m not sure what I think about that. What do you think?

    • It is very hard. Thank you for reading and allowing yourself to reflect on it in writing.

      Kay Redfield Jamison, a brilliant psychiatrist who has Bipolar herself, has done extensive research on the intersection of mood disorders and creativity. Her book, “Touched by Fire” addresses this subject.

      Personally, I think it may be more accurate to say that creative geniuses (like Plath and Van Gogh) who have a mood disorder experience the highs and lows more intensely than many others (and express them with haunting beauty through their art).

      • So, because of their ability, they are able to capture these intense emotions and touch others to whom such representations appear extraordinary?
        I’d like to read “Touched by Fire”. Thanks for the tip.

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