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Observations on Sylvia Plath

I just finished reading The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. It’s fairly difficult to read; by nature, the writing can be extremely stream-of-conscious and scattered, making it hard to get into a groove. However, it’s quite fascinating, in that it allows a deeply personal look into SP’s life. Here are some of my observations about SP.

Her favorite color is red

Her favorite color is red, as observed when she speaks about herself in the 3rd person:

‘Oh, no,’ the girl said. She had never ridden in an M-G before. And red was her favorite color. (126)

SP uses the word “red” a total of 340 times throughout her journals; red jackets, red jerseys, red lips, red hair, red chimneys, etc. For comparison, she uses the word “love” 429 times, and the word “ted” 446 times. Red may be her favorite color, but it is not her most frequently used color: white, black, green, and blue all have higher word counts. I’ll chalk this up to word/color regularity and descriptive preferences.

Here are two moments that illustrate SP’s love for red.

She reminisces, whilst abroad at Cambridge, upon lost garments of red:

...that was the last party at Saint John's where I lost the red glove, as tonight I lost the red bandeau which I loved with all the redness in my heart. (213)

She wears red stockings with red shoes:

For the first time put on my red silk stockings with red shoes - they feel amazing, or, rather, the color feels amazing - almost incandescent fire silk-sheathing my legs... (379)

She really likes picking her nose

This observation is best explained with a quote:

As for minute joys: as I was saying: do you realize the illicit sensuous delight I get from picking my nose? I always have, ever since I was a child - there are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucous in the nostril and draw them out to be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts. Or a heavier, determined forefinger can reach up and smear down-and-out the soft, resilient, elastic greenish-yellow smallish blobs of mucous, roll them round and jelly-like between thumb and fore finger, and spread them on the under surface of a desk or chair where they will harden into organic crusts. How many desks and chairs have I thus secretively befouled since childhood? Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucous: in dry brown scabs, or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what a sexual satisfaction! It is absorbing to look with new sudden eyes on the old worn habits: to see a sudden luxurious and pestilential “snot-green sea,” and shiver with the shock of recognition. (165)

Lemon meringue pie is her go-to desert

SP and Ted Hughes (her husband) frequently have friends and acquaintances over for dinner. At such gatherings, SP often whips up her damn good lemon meringue pie.

Tonight I shall somehow manage dinner for 5 & coffee for an extra two with ease. My trusty angel-topped lemon meringue pie - if I serve a dinner once a week I lose my nervousness. (323)

I make a damn good lemon meringue pie. (323)

Warren for a good dinner Saturday, roast beef, creamed spinach in broth, and a superb lemon meringue pie. (462)

She has impressive dream recall

SP’s journals often include recounts of her dreams. They seem to be inserted fairly haphazardly. One moment she’ll be talking about cheesecake, the next she’ll be describing her dream about catching a tiny white rabbit. One possible explanation: SP remembers her dreams at random, and if she happens to be writing in her journal at the moment she remembers, she jots it down. This explanation doesn’t mesh perfectly with the times where she talks about both her dream and Ted’s interpretation of it; maybe those entries are less random.

Besides the random placement, SP’s dream descriptions have two other interesting qualities. First, she often writes about her dreams a good while after they happen: either at night, or sometimes a few days after. Second, she often interprets her dreams (or Ted interprets them). In other words, she displays an impressive memory for dreams and a penchant for finding meaning in them.

A typical dream recount:

Dreamed last night of being a matron with seven daughters, like dolls, whom I was to dress in party dresses all graded rose-colors, yet I found blue and purple dresses among the yellow and pink. (483)

Here, she interprets her dream (with much liberality):

The chicken, raw, wrapped in paper in the icebox, dropped a drop of blood on my pristine white cheesecake. Dreamed of catching a very tiny white rabbit last night: a menstruating dream? (486)

SP showing off her dream recall:

Dreamed several nights ago of having a five-mounths (born at five months?) old blond baby boy named Dennis riding, facing me, my hips, a heavy sweet-smelling child. The double amazement: that he was so beautiful and healthy and so little trouble. Ted claims this is a rebirth of my deep soul. Auspicious. (521)

She is sinusoidal and cannot learn German

That is, she bounces dangerously between happy and depressed, motivated and apathetic, German enthusiast and German betrug. I bring up the German point because it illustrates her personality fairly well.

SP uses the word “german” 57 times. We’ll now take a brief tour of SP’s relationship with the language.

Here, she plans on being tutored in German:

I feel I've cheated myself on languages: I haven't really worked at learning it, and I must be tutored in German next year, instead of Italian. (215)

Some time later, SP determines she will study German over the summer:

This summer: no job, or only very part time job. German study & French reading. (306)

She ends up taking a summer class, but not much sticks.

After a while, she takes up German again:

I began German - two hours a day, on July 1st. Have started translating Grimm's fairytales, making a vocab list, but must work now on the grammar lessons - have forgotten all verb & noun-case forms, but am surprised enough I can get the sense of a story after two years of not touching it. (399)

Upon moving to Yaddo, an artist’s colony, she attempts to motivate herself...:

Learn German. Don't let indolence, the forerunner of death, take over. (502)

but has trouble following through...:

I haven't done German since I came. (506 - 507)

and trouble persisting:

Worked on German for two days, then let up when I wrote poems. Must keep on with it. It is hard. So are most things worth. (519)

In summary, it’s like this. She wants to learn German. She dabbles in it. Eh, she doesn’t feel like it anymore. Or she’s too busy. Now she wants to learn German again. She wants to learn it so badly that she’s writing in her journal that she wants to learn it. She’s motivated. Oh, what’s that? She gave up again? She wants to learn German. And so on...

Here’s a final quote on the matter (of sine waves, not German):

It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative - which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it. (395)

Her journal contradicts and her love intertwines

As a young 18 year old, SP journaled on the “mating problem.” Upon looking at this discourse, one sees a number of preferences and requirements that SP lays out for her future mate. A particularly interesting section is the following, in which SP relates how she must maintain a certain level of independence in her final relationship:

The only escape (do I sound Freudian?) from the present set up as I see it, is in the exercise of a phase of life inviolate and separate from that of my future mate, and from all males with whom I might live. I am not only jealous; I am vain and proud. I will not submit to having my life fingered by my husband, enclosed in the larger circle of his activity, and nourished vicariously by tales of his actual exploits. I must have a legitimate field of my own, apart from his, which he must respect. (98 - 99)

This passage is interesting because the relationship it depicts is drastically different than SP’s actual marriage. She ends up marrying another writer (a man in the same field as her); in fact, she frequently mentions that he exceeds her in this field. Further, their lives end up becoming inextricably intertwined; one might even characterize SP as codependent. Here’s what I’m talking about.

In this quote, the degree to which SP’s life is entangled with Ted’s is evident:

Wish I could at same time gone to see the Anouilh play - I am superstitious about separations from Ted, even for an hour. I think I must live in his heat and presence, for his smells and words - as if all my senses fed involuntarily on him and deprived for more than a few hours, I languish, wither, die to the world. (378)

It is also evident here, although at this time SP is attempting to become more independent:

Dangerous to be so close to Ted day in day out. I have no life separate from his, am likely to become a mere accessory. (524)

To quote Plath on Plath, greatest flaw is the smug satisfaction that I am intuitively right because I change and grow and then my new vision always seems right because it has increased insight; the process of enlightenment is, however, continuous... (558)

She has mother issues

Here’s the rundown. SP views her mom as an enemy, as the person who “killed” her father, as the “murderess of maleness.” SP blames her mom for killing her father because her mom delivered the news and because her mom never really loved him. And then there are the typical mom problems. Her mom wants SP to get a more stable job, wants her to settle down a bit; her mom worries too much. Thus, she has the following to say about Aurelia:

My mother killed the only man who’d love me steady through life: came in one morning with tears of nobility in her eyes and told me he was gone for good. I hate her for that. I hate her because he wasn’t loved by her... He was old, but she married an old man to be my father. It was her fault. Damn her eyes. (431)

Do unto yourself as you would do to others. I’d kill her, so I killed myself. (433)

I could pass her in the street and not say a word, she depresses me so. (433)

Bonus Observations

  • She loves colons, and often jams a handful into a single sentence. "I felt cheated: I wasn’t loved but all the signs said I was loved: the world said I was loved: the powers-that-were said I was loved" (433).
  • She has a tendency to abbreviate names with capital letters. For example, T = Ted and RB = Ruth Beuscher (her husband and psychiatrist, respectively).
  • She can be quite blunt (this was written while she was in a hospital). "Today I threw of my fetters. - got up to wash & had my first laborious goat-shit, changed my hospital pink & red flapping jacket which left my bum bare to my frilly pink & white Victorian night-gown" (602).