Sylvia Plath would have been 82 years old today. (Which means maybe she would have died of old age by now instead of that gas oven? Or maybe she’d still be hanging around. They’re only “would haves”; we’ll never really know.)
The first time I read anything by Sylvia Plath was in my sophomore year of high school. Her name popped up somewhere on my radar, so I googled some of her poems. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” quickly became my favorite, and it still is for sentimentality’s sake, but I’ve read so many other pieces by her since then that my favorite seems to change daily. Shortly after, I picked up The Bell Jar from the school library–a weathered hardcover copy with a yellow and red cover–and lay in bed reading it. I finished in a night or two.
There’s nothing special, of course, about the way or time I discovered her. We all hear the much mocked and maligned cliche of teen girls huddling up with The Bell Jar to romanticize and what have you. Except I don’t think that’s really the case, and I always cringe when I hear teasing comments like that because I expect it’s more likely that the struggle of just being a girl is something readers connect with when reading The Bell Jar and other work by Sylvia Plath–and her way with words doesn’t hurt her case, either. She can take something mundane, something every day and turns it into this beautifully shaped experience. Or she can take something immensely personal and make it so intriguing you almost feel uncomfortable peeking in.
The day I picked up The Bell Jar from the library, my Spanish teacher walked by and stopped to ask what I had in my hands. I tilted the book in his direction, and he began to wrinkle his nose a little before (maybe) realizing what he was doing. Intentional or not, I generally don’t appreciate book shaming, so that moment’s always stuck with me, especially since I fell so in love with the book when I read it. It’s exactly that kind of response that frustrates me, though, because it almost exclusively comes from hearsay, not personal experience with her work. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, though, as you can see, and my next goal is to start collecting and devouring biographies.
Now, I reread The Bell Jar each year, and I often feel like I catch something new or connect with a different piece each time. Depending on the time of year, what’s going on in life, and how everything comes together to either coddle or mangle my insides, I can read either with a surface appreciation, something bordering on detachment, to a deep understanding of what Sylvia Plath’s saying. Regardless of how I’m coming to the novel, though, it never gets old.
If I were to ever say I have a favorite writer, it would be her.
Happy birthday, Sylvia.
John Green also does an excellent job talking about Sylvia Plath in this Crash Course Literature episode: