Sylvia Plath - tightropes walk between genius and insanity?

Essay, 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 2,5



1. Biographical Overview Sylvia Plath (based on Hayman)

2. Interpretation of Sylvia Plath`s poem “Tulips”
2.1. Symbolic features in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips”
2.1.1. Symbol “Tulip”
2.1.2. Symbol “White”
2.1.3. Symbol “Red”

3. Sylvia Plath’s father- The cause for her neuroses and depression?

4. The relationship between Sylvia and Aurelia Plath

5. Sylvia Plath’s death wish

6. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (based on Hayman)

7. Literary works:

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

Internet Sources

10. Tulips

1. Biographical Overview Sylvia Plath (based on Hayman)

First I would like to start with an brief overview about Sylvia Plath`s life. Therefore I paraphrase the chronology which is given in Hayman`s “The death and life of Sylvia Plath”[1].

Sylvia Plath is born in Boston on October 27th in 1932. Her parents are Aurelia Schober Plath (an educated and cultured homemaker) and Emil Otto Plath (a professor of Zoology and German at Boston University)[2]. Three years later her brother Warren is born. In 1938 Sylvia starts school.

Otto Plath is ill. He has diabetes and in 1940 his leg has to be amputated. But it is too late. He dies in the same year.

In 1947 Sylvia starts at Gamaliel Bradford High School. She is one of twenty students who are allowed to take part in Wilbury Crockett`s course on American literature. Later in 1949 Sylvia writes for “The Townsman”, a column. She is also editor of the

“The Bradford”, a magazine. One year later Sylvia writes short stories for several magazines and becomes a scholarship holder to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In 1952, almost two years after beginning of her freshman year, her story “Sunday at the Mintons” is published. On year later Sylvia stays in New York for a month to manage the “Mademoiselle”-magazine as a guest where her story which I mentioned before was published. Two months after that she tries to commit suicide with sleeping tablets and is brought in the psychiatric section of the Massachusetts General Hospital. After her stay there she is under treatment by Doctor Ruth Beuscher in Belmont.

In 1954 Sylvia is back at Smith College where she graduates from “summa cum laude” in June, 1955. At the same time Sylvia becomes scholarship holder to Cambridge University where she attended a course the summer before.

Soon after Sylvia meets her later husband Ted Hughes at a party and shortly after they get married in London.

Sylvia takes her final exams in 1957 and starts teaching at the Smith College.

Already in 1958 Sylvia finds Ted Hughes with another girl and decides to get treated by Doctor Beuscher again.

In 1959 she gets pregnant for the first time and in 1960 they move to London where her daughter Frieda Rebecca is born. Besides her first collection “The Colossus” is published.

In winter 1961 she starts working on her first novel “The Bell Jar”. In February that year she has a miscarriage and early after she has to go to hospital again for operating her appendectomy. (This time is the basis for the poem “Tulips” which I analyse later in that term paper.)

Her son Nicholas Farrar is born in 1962. After a short relaxation she starts to work hard on verse. In June Plath tries to commit suicide again by a deliberate creation of a car incident.

In July Plath finds out that Hughes has an affair with Assia Wevill. Plath and Hughes separate and Plath moves with her children in a flat in London. Nevertheless Sylvia works on a collection of poems called “Ariel”.

In 1961 she finishes “The Bell Jar” but it is published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas just before Sylvia commits suicide.

2. Interpretation of Sylvia Plath`s poem “Tulips”

Richard Grey[3] points out that the origins of the poem lie in Plath`s personal experience. I agree with that because I found out while reading Sylvia Plath`s biography (Hayman[4] ) that it is correct that she often stayed in hospital for longer times. Therefore I think the persona of the poem could be identified as Plath herself. It is probable that she is writing about her own experience. This assertion becomes clear when the addressee reads the exact descriptions of the hospital and gets to know about the multitude of memories that seem to be real and concrete.

Jeannine Dobbs supports the theory of Plath`s hospital stay: “Ted Hughes says she wrote “Tulips” after being hospitalized for an appendectomy in March of 1961.”[5]

Besides Grey[6] compares Path’s hospital stay with “a dying away from the world”. He points out that she has given up her identity, her life, her daughter and her husband:

“I have given my name and my day-clothes to the nurses

And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.”

She has given up herself, all her responsibilities und her family. It seems that she does not want to live any longer. It is easier to be nobody, to be an object without duties:

“I am nobody…”

“My body is a pebble to them…”

“They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations…”

Hayman[7] underlines this statement and points out that “Tulips” show how the death wish becomes inseparable from the regressive desire to abdicate responsibility for routine tasks.”(153-154) ´The death wish becomes obvious:

“And I have no face, I wanted to efface myself.”

The persona compares herself with “a thirty-year-old cargo boat”; she compares herself with an object. When I think about it I draw the conclusion that a so old boat must have problems with decrepitude. Maybe it has to be repaired or overhauled; maybe there are faster cargo boats which can carry more freight. Nevertheless everything is still repairable. But is it economic? I think, compared with the persona it means that a recovery and “a coming back to real life” are possible when it is desired, when she likes to live an everyday life again.

Through the poem Plath makes the reader aware about what can happen to a person who is lying in the hospital without any hopes. About the worries, thoughts and feelings a patient can have in a hospital.

Uroff gives a different explanation for understanding the poem:” The nurses bring her numbness in “bright needles,” and, as she succumbs to the anaesthesia, she claims that she only wanted to be utterly empty. However, she does not rest in that attitude very long before she comes out of the operating room and its anesthetized state and begins reluctantly to confront her pain. Her first response is to complain that the tulips hurt her, watch her, that they eat up her oxygen. But, when the speaker claims a correspondence between the tulips` redness and her own wound…”


[1] Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. Sutton Publishing, 2003.

[2] Axelrod, Steven. “Sylvia Plath”, accessed 1 September 2006:

[3] Grey, Richard. “Tulips,” accessed 15 August 2006:

[4] Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. Sutton Publishing, 2003.

[5] Dobbs, Jeannine. “Tulips,” accessed 15 August 2006:

[6] Grey, Richard. “Tulips,” accessed 15 August 2006:

[7] Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. Sutton Publishing, 2003.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Sylvia Plath - tightropes walk between genius and insanity?
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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Sylvia, Plath, Poem
Quote paper
Jeannette Nedoma (Author), 2006, Sylvia Plath - tightropes walk between genius and insanity?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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