Sylvia Plath is My Problematic Fave. So What Does This Say About Me?

I made excuses for Plath's racism for 20 years—until I started re-evaluating the ways in which I’ve perpetuated racism in my own life


A black and white photo of Sylvia Plath seated in front of a book shelf

(Photo: Getty)

In my personal calendar of secular observance, October is Sylvia Plath season. It’s not just that her birthday is this month—although it is, on October 27, proving that Scorpio stereotypes really do come true—but there’s something about this time that seems to embody her. The year has just passed the tipping point in its slide towards midwinter darkness; the days are deceptively bright and the nights are spooky. The rapid changes in temperature feel alternately exhilarating and overwhelming. There’s palpable magic in the air, but not the joyful magic of high summer—this is a wild, more ambiguous magic.

I’ve been a fervent Sylvia Plath fan since high school, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve read every text of hers that’s ever been published, including her journals and letters. Whenever my life hits a rough patch, I find myself digging through her writing, looking for the particular line or turn of phrase that will get me through. But as time goes on, I find that my feelings towards her are as ambivalent as the October weather. There is a lot that I still love, like the raw honesty with which she wrote about her depression, or how she articulated the ways in which her drive and ambition clashed with contemporary gender roles, or the pure fury that she channeled in her last poems. There is also some really awful stuff in there, stuff that I have neatly avoided when discussing her work. All of our faves are problematic, of course, but what exactly do you do with a problematic fave? And, perhaps more pressingly, what do our problematic faves say about us? If Plath’s work resonates with me, and some of that work is harmful, what does that say about who I am as a person?

Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar—which was published less than a month before her death by suicide, at age 30, in 1963—is a seminal work about mental illness, suicide and institutionalization. The protagonist and narrator, Esther Greenwood, is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Plath, and the novel is largely autobiographical. The prose is as poetic as it is unsparing; in fact, some of the characterizations in it are so honest and cutting (at one point, she writes that she felt “depressed” the first time she saw her ex-boyfriend naked, saying his genitalia looked like “a turkey neck and turkey gizzards”) that Plath originally had it published under a pseudonym and kept it a secret from her family. The book is now considered a classic of American literature, and in many senses it is very representative of the canon to which it belongs. And, like many famous works written by white mid-century authors, it is steeped in racism.

The narrative of The Bell Jar is roughly divided into two halves; the first part details the events leading up to Esther’s breakdown, and the second part tracks her suicide attempt and subsequent recovery. While there are several racist moments in the early chapters of The Bell Jar—Esther describes herself as looking “yellow as a Chinaman,” and her friend Doreen as being “dusky as a bleached blonde negress”—the most egregious moment comes while she’s a patient at a state psychiatric hospital. In it, Esther scolds and kicks a Black orderly because the dinner he’s dishing out contains two types of beans; during this scene, she refers to the Black man as “the negro” and uses all kinds of racist stereotypes when recounting his appearance and speech.

Readers aren’t meant to be sympathetic to Esther’s actions in this scene, exactly; we’re supposed to take them as part of a broader group of evidence of her growing paranoia and volatility. That being said, there’s no getting around the fact that Plath uses deeply dehumanizing language to describe the only Black character in her novel. It’s also worth pointing out that the other people Esther displays paranoia and antipathy towards while she’s at her sickest—medical professionals, her mother, other psychiatric patients—are people she mistrusts even when she’s well. As tempting as it is to blame Esther’s illness for her actions, it’s much more likely that Esther’s illness lowered her social inhibitions and brought her pre-existing racist beliefs to the surface. The kicking scene is never addressed at any other point in the book, nor does Esther ever express any remorse for it. The Black orderly is treated as a prop used to help illustrate Esther’s deterioration.

I was a teenager the first time I read The Bell Jar, and although I noticed the book’s racist moments, I was able to make up plenty of excuses for them. I told myself that it wasn’t that Plath was bigoted, it was just that she was a product of her time and circumstance. Different things were acceptable back then; if she’d written it today, surely she wouldn’t have used those words. Later, I told myself that the language was valuable as a sort of time capsule, one that let us see how casually white people used slurs back in the olden days. Even when my conscience twinged, I did my best not to let it interfere with my love of the book. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to admit that Plath was flawed—my motivations were more selfish than that. I didn’t want face the fact that there was something deeply ugly about the book I’d clung to in my darkest moments with a zeal usually reserved for religious texts. It was a sort of cognitive dissonance—I didn’t think that I was racist, so therefore the things I loved and resonated with couldn’t be racist. I saw myself in Plath’s writing, and I didn’t want the reflection to be unflattering.

It’s tempting to opt out of dealing with my Plath fandom by either suddenly renouncing her, or else keeping my old blinders on and refusing to name her racism for what it is. But both of those options feel like attempts to further avoid responsibility—the latter through continued willful ignorance, and the former by pretending that I haven’t spent two decades coming up with euphemisms (“racially insensitive,” “cringe-worthy,” “dated”) to gloss over the problems in her writing. Which brings me back around to the question of how to handle the problematic fave, which is especially difficult to solve when said fave has been dead for several decades and isn’t exactly in a position to offer any apologies or retractions.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, of course, but the best I’ve been able to come up with for myself has been to use my relationship with Plath’s work as a way of re-evaluating the ways in which I’ve participated in white supremacy. If that sounds like a dramatic pronouncement, I promise that it’s not supposed to be. I mean more that by evaluating how I’ve treated the racism in her writing, I am able to see the ways, both mundane and insidious, in which I’ve perpetuated racism in my own life: through silence, through circumlocution, through not seeing the things I don’t want to see. There was no lightning bolt moment that led me to this, just a slow, painstaking reckoning with my own whiteness. Plath is not the beginning of this reckoning, and she certainly won’t be the end, but she’s the lens through which I’m looking at myself right now. If I don’t like what I see, then it’s up to me to change it.

One of Plath’s pet fascinations was the idea of the double. In 1955, she submitted her undergraduate thesis on the topic of doppelgangers in Dostoyevsky’s work, writing that they represent the “the evil or repressed characteristics of its master.” Many of her biographers talk about her search for a double in her own life, through a series of intense friendships with other women. It’s also been argued that Esther’s character functions Plath’s double, a dark side of her that she was struggling to understand. If that’s the case, then maybe I should see Plath as my own double: a shadow self, one not worthy of the veneration I’ve given her, but worthy of my attention all the same.

More from Anne Thériault:
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