by Taylor Purcell
I am currently reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for an English class and learned that the novel was loosely based on Plath’s own life. The major difference between the main character of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, and Sylvia Plath is that while Esther attempts to commit suicide, she doesn’t actually kill herself and supposedly regains her mental health. Plath, on the other hand, does commit suicide, dying only a month after The Bell Jar was published. I’ve also read some of Plath’s poetry, including her (badass) poem Daddy, which describes the complicated and really just horrible relationship she had with her father, and how that carried over to her relationship with her husband, Ted Hughes. Based on all of that, it’s easy to assume the reason Plath committed suicide to be based on her issues stemming from childhood that continued to affect her throughout her life. I found out, though, that Ted Hughes’s mistress Assia Wevill also committed suicide, making Ted Hughes one of the most disliked poets in history. Yet, there are more questions than answers with Ted Hughes and his relationships.
Sylvia Plath had a troubled life and had a tumultuous relationship with Hughes. During her time women were expected to choose either to be a homemaker or a professional. In The Bell Jar, Greenwood’s primary issue is that she doesn’t want to, and can’t choose between the two, and Plath probably felt the same way, as she strives to have both her writing career and a family. In her poem Daddy, Plath describes her strange relationship with her father who was an abusive, controlling man. She relates him to a Nazi and herself to a Jew, which should paint a pretty vivid picture of what their relationship was like even though she was only eight when he died. There were a lot of parallels between Plath’s father and Hughes. They even had the same interest in bumblebees; Plath’s dad writing a book about them and Hughes began to keep bees later in their marriage. Additionally, in Daddy, Plath tells how she married “a model” of her dad, who loved “the rack and the screw”. Based on the poem alone, Hughes does not sound like the ideal husband, or person, especially since he continuously carried on a relationship with his mistress, Assia Wevill.
Assia Wevill met Hughes and Plath late in their marriage. Her and Hughes quickly started an affair, and she got pregnant with Hughes’s child while Plath was still alive, but she got an abortion. Plath found out about her pregnancy and obviously didn’t take it well. Plath’s social life was greatly disheveled by Hughes’s published writings about his passionate and lustful affair with Wevill. Some say these could have been contributing factors in Plath’s suicide. After Plath died, Wevill got pregnant again and had Hughes’s baby. Wevill was married throughout her relationship with Hughes, but it was common knowledge that her and Hughes were together. Hughes had at least two other mistresses while carrying on his relationship with Wevill. Four years after Plath’s death, Wevill killed herself and her daughter the same way that Plath did, using the gas stove. She closed all the doors and windows, took sleeping pills, and was later found dead laying on a mattress with her child. Some believe that this shows that the problem was not in the women, it was in Ted Hughes.
The full truth behind Plath’s and Wevill’s death will probably never be known, but I do think both women were more complex and involved more than the infidelity of their husband. Surprisingly, Hughes could keep getting women, considering the two women he was in relationships with committed suicide, and it was very well known that he was cheating on both of them.
Hughes didn’t usually talk about Plath’s or Wevill’s suicide, and in fact tried to cut the memory of Wevill from his life completely after she died. Only in 1990 did he publish a series of poems about Wevill and her suicide that he titled Capriccio. In one of these poems and blames Wevill for deliberately killing herself on Plath’s funeral pyre. He did write about Plath’s death, however, not long after it happened and while he was still in an affair with Wevill. Ironically, he would hand over the drafts of the work to Wevill to edit. He would have his mistress edit his writings about his deceased wife; the mistress who he was seeing before his wife died, and who might have had an effect on Plath’s suicide. He never planned to marry Wevill, and when there were conflicts between her and his parents he would always side with his parents. Some believe that this assisted Wevill’s suicide, as she said her dreams of living with Hughes were over and there would never be another man for her.
Ted Hughes was not liked by the public. Many blame him completely for the death of his wives and he was criticized for destroying the last parts of Plath’s journal after her death. Plath’s tombstone has been vandalized many times from people trying to rub the “Hughes” off of her name. One of the final things that Hughes said about the suicides of his wives was that Plath’s was inevitable and was building up in her since her childhood while Wevill’s was avoidable. He believed that Plath’s was the effect of his heinous decisions, while Wevill’s was the effect of his heinous indecision, relating to his inability to fully commit to her.
An unpublished poem by Ted Hughes was found in 2010 about the day of Plath’s death, where he spilled out his anguish.
“What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening.”