Recently, I’ve been watching SyFy’s soon-to-be completed show Warehouse 13, because I am a nerd and am in love with Claudia Donovan. I finished season three last night and am more than a bit disgruntled that Netflix doesn’t have season four available yet. If you’re not into SF (or at least not into SyFy, which is perfectly respectable), the main concept of the show is that certain artifacts can become imbued with the energy of their original owners and thus obtain powers. From the literary world, we’ve seen Edgar Allen Poe’s journal and pen give their wielder the power to write things into existence, and we’ve seen the illustrations from Shakespeare’s lost folio causing people to die unless the receiver of the picture can quote the character’s last line before the page sets itself on fire. We’ve also seen Sylvia Plath’s typewriter.
Plath’s typewriter is kept in the warehouse’s “dark vault,” where the most dangerous and influential artifacts can stew under a constant UV light that keeps them more or less neutralized. Even inside of the dark vault, Plath’s typewriter maintains a sphere of influence, and when one of the characters gets caught in it, he rapidly loses the will to live. By Hollywood standards, at least. He literally says things like “What’s the point?” “Does any of it really matter?” etc.
So apart from the fact that Plath favored Hermes typewriters, and that her Royal was a completely different model than the one used in the show, what’s the harm in having her typewriter appear in the warehouse, sucking away its victims’ souls?
Sylvia Plath gets a bad rap in the literary world as being this overly angsty, overly emotional, overly feminist crazy lady poet whose mental struggles are more glorified than her actual work. Very few discussions of The Bell Jar omit the intersecting details of the novel and Plath’s lived experience. When we talk about her poetry, we talk about Ariel and Colossus. We talk about “Daddy.” We talk about Plath’s suicide as if her death itself was one of her poetic creations, as if it was an expression of her art. And then we tend to forget everything else.
Take Plath’s poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” from her posthumous collection, Crossing the Water. Instead of being the veneration of despair you would expect from such a disturbed and depressed woman (as Plath is portrayed), the poem is bursting with the beauty and radiance of the mundane. I recommend reading the whole poem, but here are the last two stanzas:
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
I don’t read the common conception of Plath in this poem at all. I see struggling forces and a stubborn hold on reality, and hope for the future. Have we been getting Plath wrong all along, then? What about her only fiction, The Bell Jar? Surely that book must be depressing and angsty and full of despair.
Yes, at points.The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood’s descent into depression and her stay in a mental hospital, and many of the events of the novel are thinly veiled autobiographical information about Sylvia Plath. This is the reason she published it under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas while living in Britain and why she never wanted it to be published in the US while her mother was still alive.
I think we get so caught up in knowing that Plath’s life was like Esther’s life, was like Plath’s life, so not fiction! that we forget that The Bell Jar is fiction. When we forget that, we forget that the novel never glorifies mental illness, nor does it spend pages upon pages describing how Esther feels about everything. In fact, there’s a general void of deep emotion in Esther’s narration. Instead, she focuses on the facts and events of her life, which reveal her precarious mental state. And, let’s be honest, Esther is funny. Here’s one of my favorite passages from The Bell Jar:
Ordering drinks always floored me. I didn’t know whiskey from gin and never managed to get anything I really liked the taste of. Buddy Willard and the other college boys I knew were usually too poor to buy hard liquor or they scorned drinking all together. It’s amazing how many college boys don’t drink or smoke. I seemed to know them all. …
“I’ll have a vodka,” I said.
The man looked at me more closely. “With anything?”
“Just plain,” I said. “I always have it plain.”
I thought I might make a fool of myself by saying I’d have it with ice or soda or gin or anything. I’d seen a vodka ad once, just a glass full of vodka standing in the middle of a snowdrift in a blue light, and the vodka looked clear and pure as water, so I thought having vodka plain must be all right. My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.
On the next page she proceeds to internally mock a man for being short and wearing blue. Esther spends more time in the book talking about sex and losing her virginity than her struggles with mental instability, and at the end of the book she’s hopeful she has overcome her struggles. This is not the Sylvia Plath everybody talks about, and certainly her typewriter wouldn’t drain the will to live out of anyone who went near it, as the typewriter in Warehouse 13’s dark vault does.
We romanticize Sylvia Plath’s death and depression as sacrifices on the great altar of Art, but when I read her work, I see a stubborn, proud, and hopeful human being.