[1 July 2003]
“Sylvia Plath, who has now been dead longer than she was alive, wrote The Bell Jar , composed her Pulitzer Prize winning poetry, put together a collection of stories, had a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge, graduated summa cum laude from Smith, taught a couple of semesters at her alma mater, had a couple of stays in a mental hospital, managed to have love affairs that ended badly and one marriage that was on its way to ending badly, gave birth to two babies - and still she was able to die at age 30, a suicide on schedule preceded by a life that ran at a breakneck pace.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women
In Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath , Kate Moses fictitiously recreates the last days of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Thanks to a plethora of research (catalogued at the end of the novel), Moses adds both muscle and fat to a skeleton of fact, drawing a believable portrait of how the poet, the artist, and the mother of two, began life anew after separating from fellow poet and husband Ted Hughes.
The publication of Wintering coincides with the 40th anniversary of Plath’s death. Each of the novel’s 41 chapters is labeled with a poem’s title from Ariel - the collection Plath was working on when she died. Moses asserts that she arranged the chapter titles not by the chronological version as edited by Ted Hughes, but by Plath’s original ordering of the poems, which began with the word “love” and ended with the word “spring.” Yes, the idea is one of rebirth, of rejuvenation, and Moses creates a Plath who is her own woman, an independent woman. But if nature’s first green is gold, as Frost once wrote, it is also her hardest hue to hold.
See, in the end, Sylvia Plath did kill herself. Moses comes off as Plath’s posthumous ally, augmenting Plath’s feminist prowess to incredulous heights. Plath is drawn as strong and feisty, someone who beats back her anger, sadness, and madness with ferocious resolve. Yet Plath’s real life also maintained a slow dance with death that is absent in Moses’ text, save the trite references to the poet’s stays in a mental hospital. No matter how ripe Moses paints the spring buds that surround the manor house, the real flowers lay on Plath’s grave.
Moses’ rendition of Plath’s life focuses on the last two weeks in December of 1962 when Plath, having just discovered that Ted had been carrying on an affair with family friend, Assia Wevill, moves her two children out of their Devonshire country house of Court Green and into a London flat, a building once inhabited by Yeats himself.
The story flutters back and forth between present day London and Plath and Hughes’ life at Court Green. The frequent use of flashbacks colors the work with juicy and gossipy remembrances of things past—Ted and Sylvia’s tempestuous marriage, a marriage that was both creative and destructive; Sylvia’s overbearing and suffocating relationship with her mother; and the birth of the Hughes’ two children - Frieda and Nicholas.
Now a single mother of two in a small London flat, sans a nanny or a phone, Plath undertakes two endeavors—to make a home for her and her children in their new abode and to finally make a name for herself as poet. As soon as she leaves Ted, Plath feverishly begins a series of poems that will be her crown and glory— Ariel .
Despite her prodigious outpouring of written material, Plath remains depressed by her husband’s infidelity and betrayal; indeed she seems to be on the verge of yet another breakdown. When Sylvia gives Ted her manuscript to read, her coveted artistic respect is gained, for Ted is awestruck by the material. Then as she and her children fall physically ill, Sylvia calls for Ted, sending him back to Court Green in one of England’s worst snow storms. His mission—to fetch the apples, honey, and red curtains Plath left at their country homes, a collection Plath believes will be her saving grace.
It must be remembered, however, that this is a Kate Moses take on the life, or imitation thereof, of Sylvia Plath. Moses stops short of one of the most defining points in Plath’s life—her suicide. While Plath is, and needs to be seen, as more than her final moment, it can be neither forgotten nor excised. Its absence in Wintering not only creates a fictitious storyline, but creates a fictitious figure. Half of Sylvia Plath was the culmination of her years of depression, her endless wanting in a world and in a time that discouraged women from wanting anything at all—anything more than being a mother and a housewife, a member of the neighborhood coffee klatch.
A flash of Moses’ talent and dexterity comes on page 82, where lines of Plath’s poem, “Lady Lazarus,” are welded into the final paragraph of the chapter. “In the eye blink of a god, in a heartbeat, all that she clung to rises up wither like smoke, like ash, into the charged dead air: The cakes of soap. Her wedding ring. His gold filling.” The integration of lines of Plath’s poetry into prose is common, but here Moses’ own creativity and brilliance exudes. It is a brilliance often deadened by her loquacious and logorrhea prone prose, especially when describing nature. While Moses should be lauded for her depiction of the minutiae, some passages require patience (or Ritalin) as they are steeped in long-winded, and frequently tortuous, melodrama.
Sylvia Plath was a phenomenal and prolific poet who died too young in a world too old for her and her desires. Many researches, writers, and pundits have tried to paint a complete life of Plath—tried to fill the missing pieces with their hunches, beliefs, and “research”. It is an impossible task—impossible even for the late Ted Hughes, for Sylvia’s mother Aurelia. The only one that can testify to the life of Sylvia Plath is the artist herself. Unfortunately, she is not around to enlighten us.
One may ask why is Plath important? Or maybe even, why can’t she go away? Plath has become a totem of the culture. She has become an adjective, a way of describing someone who is a bit off one’s rocker. She isn’t remembered because she was cheated on or because she won a Pulitzer Prize. More often than not, she is remembered for gassing herself. But she embodies something that remains prevalent, even commonplace today. She embodies that feeling—a sadness, an emptiness, an ache -that continues to exist in people today, but is pacified by psychopharmacology. The ache Plath felt, the ache of her contemporaries—women such as Anne Sexton and men such as Robert Lowell—has been dulled and even abated over the years, not thanks to personal growth and enlightenment, but Prozac, Paxil, and Wellbutrin.
If one truly desires to get close to the poet, to gain the most accurate reading of her life and emotions, back to her text they should go—back to the poetry, the short stories, the potboiler of a novel, for it is there where Sylvia can be found. There where she really lives. Everything else is just a version of the truth, or perhaps better said, another version of fiction.