On Feb. 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath was found dead in her London flat. With her young son and daughter locked in an upstairs bedroom, she gassed herself in the kitchen. She had long battled depression. This final, deadly bout began the previous summer when her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes disintegrated, a casualty of his infidelity. At her death, Plath had written more than 220 poems, a novel, short stories, a children’s book, essays, letters — most of the work unpublished. She was 30.
When her poetry collection “Ariel” appeared in 1966, it became a sensation. Using vivid, precise language, Plath documented subjects vital to her — motherhood, marriage, betrayal, suicide. In poems like “Daddy” and “The Applicant,” searing indictments of a disloyal husband, Plath accosted Hughes with a fury rarely seen in literature. Hers was a singular, powerful female voice.
That rage, brought on by Hughes but also the general circumstances of her life, resonated with women. In 1963, Betty Friedan had published “The Feminine Mystique,” her chronicle of “the problem with no name” — women’s growing discontent with domesticity — which led to the second-wave women’s movement. Gloria Steinem, Plath’s classmate at Smith College, saw in Plath the essence of a woman trying to have it all and failing. Plath was emblematic of Friedan’s “problem,” the yearning women felt to do more than mind children and navigate household chores.
As Plath’s popularity grew, details about her marriage’s break-up emerged. In July 1962, Plath had learned that Hughes was having an affair with Assia Wevill, an aspiring poet. The couple separated; Plath pursued a divorce. But, instead of being mindful of Plath, who was depressed, frequently ill, and hard-pressed to care for their children, Hughes was belligerent, hostile, and often manipulative of Plath, who still loved him.
Armed with this knowledge, Plath’s admirers took aim at Hughes. In her poem “Arraignment,” feminist Robin Morgan accused Hughes of “murder” — that is, of driving Plath to suicide. At Hughes’s readings, women heckled him. Plath sympathizers began pilgrimages to the Yorkshire graveyard where she was buried under a tombstone bearing the name “Sylvia Plath Hughes” to chisel off the “Hughes.” Plath was now a feminist martyr — the embodiment of a woman destroyed by her husband and the misogynistic society he represented.
By the early ’70s, “Ariel” was a perennial bestseller. In 1971, “The Bell Jar,” Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about her nervous breakdown in college, published under a pseudonym in England shortly before she died, appeared in America and landed on the New York Times bestseller list for six months. Other books followed — poetry volumes, a short story collection, her letters home, her journals.
With each new work, attention on her failed marriage intensified. Feminists continued to attack Hughes, but his defenders countered that Plath was difficult, demanding, so possessive she drove him away. Eventually, the portrait of the marriage — two young geniuses striking out on their writing careers only to have it all end in tragedy — assumed the status of other mythic literary unions such as those of Percy and Mary Shelley and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
While Hughes’ defenders claimed his actions were misunderstood, Hughes would ultimately admit to having not one affair but two. Besides Wevill, who became pregnant with his child only to have an abortion after Plath’s suicide, Hughes was also seeing the young poet Susan Alliston. His behavior boarded on the perverse. “Susan and I,” Hughes later wrote in an imagined confession to Plath, “spent that night/In our wedding bed. I had not seen it/Since we lay there on our wedding day.”
After the ’80s, when Plath’s “Collected Poems” won the Pulitzer Prize and the second wave of the women’s movement gave way to the third, Plath continued to appeal to women. Young women admired her for creating work as accomplished as that of any writer, male or female. On a deeper level, young women said Plath’s work gave them permission to do something society pressures women not to do — express anger, especially when it’s justified.
Today, women enjoy an unprecedented level of success. More women than ever serve in Congress and the 2016 Democratic presidential front-runner is Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, Plath has emerged as a fixture in a world — literature — historically dominated by men. With millions of copies in print worldwide, “The Bell Jar” is regarded as a coming-of-age masterpiece on par with “The Catcher in the Rye.” “Ariel” was one of the best-selling poetry volumes published in the 20th century.
By appealing to the women of her generation, who felt a passion to contribute to their culture, and then to their daughters and granddaughters, who view Plath as a model of excellence who reached the pinnacle of her field, Sylvia Plath has become one of the influential writers of her time. That, finally, is her legacy, 50 years on.
Paul Alexander is author of “Rough Magic,” a biography, and “Edge,” a one-woman play, both about Sylvia Plath.