130. SYLVIA PLATH: The fig tree
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet and author. Showing a talent for poetry at a young age (she had a poem published when she was 8), Plath earned a scholarship to Smith College, where she wrote hundreds of poems and had her work published in national magazines. Although she seemed to have the world at her feet, Plath had suffered from severe depression since she was a child and received electroshock therapy after a failed suicide attempt in her early 20s. After her recovery and eventual graduation from Smith, Plath won a Fullbright scholarship to attend Cambridge University. There she met and fell in love with another poet, Ted Hughes, whom she later married. Theirs would be one of the most famous and controversial relationships of the literary world, with the two of them eventually separating after seven years when Plath learned of Hughes’ infidelity. Fragile and left to raise their two children alone, Plath retreated into her work, with the period after her divorce being her most productive. During this time she wrote what are considered her best poems and her only novel, The Bell Jar. Sadly, Plath’s depression worsened during this period and she committed suicide in 1963, at the age of 30. In 1982, Plath was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer prize for The Collected Poems.
Plath’s style of poetry was known as ‘confessional’, with her poems being deeply autobiographical and honest. They also contained what were taboo subjects at the time, such as mental illness and suicide. For instance, here you can listen to Plath reading her poem Daddy. The haunting poem touches on her conflicted feelings for her German-born father who died when she was a child, her first suicide attempt and failed marriage to Hughes.
Plath is a beloved hero to many, and I can’t begin to do her justice. For a more in-depth story of her life, I recommend this article.
The quote used in the comic is a famous passage from Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, which is a semi-autobiographical account of Plath’s period of depression in her early 20s, her subsequent suicide attempt and stay in a psychiatric hospital. Set in the 1950s, the main character Esther (based on Plath) uses the fig tree analogy to convey her frustration with the restrictions society have placed on women. She wants to be free to do all the exciting things men do, but thinks she must conform to what other people expect of her. Esther feels paralysed by her inability to act and spirals further into depression.
- RELATED COMIC: Frank Herbert’s Litany Against Fear.
- I haven’t seen it, but Plath’s life was made into a Hollywood movie with Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as her husband, Ted Hughes.
- Thanks to Rosanna and Sahil for submitting the quote.
- Feel free to share your favourite Plath poem in the comments.