The Plath Myth

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Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,586 words

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[(essay date 1998) In the essay below, first published in 1998, Bronfen presents a detailed investigation into the development and popularity of the many variations on the "Plath myth"--posthumous reconstructions of Plath ranging from pathological victim to idolized proto-feminist--and documents the contributions to these myths made by an array of interested parties, including biographers, critics, readers, agents of the Plath Estate, and Plath's estranged husband, Ted Hughes.]

Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.(Jane Austen, Emma)

In the spring of 1989 a debate was waged in the Guardian over who owns Sylvia Plath's grave. Initially Julia Parnaby and Rachel Wingfield had written a letter to protest that, having travelled to Heptonstall churchyard in Yorkshire so as to visit the grave of the poet, they had found that it was unmarked.1 They were told the headstone had been removed after repeated vandalization, allegedly by radical feminists objecting to the fact that it commemorates the author as Sylvia Plath Hughes. The absence of this headstone was able to become such an issue of contention, however, because, in addition simply to marking a given burial site, gravestones of celebrities invariably function as a tangible memorial of the deceased for public memory. Marking a grave is meant not only to make sure that the dead poet will not be forgotten but also to designate the manner in which her story is to be remembered. To leave Sylvia Plath's human remains unidentified, claimed Parnaby and Wingfield, could be seen as tantamount to devaluing her work and relegating her to the ranks of the countless culturally productive women who have remained hidden from historical reconstructions of the past. In the course of the following weeks an array of Guardian readers either defended the proposed analogy between marking a poet's grave and marking her place in the tradition of women's literature or critiqued this as an untenable assertion. A. Alvarez, along with seven other renowned authors, called upon Ted Hughes and his family to explain the removal of the headstone, implying that this had been done to discourage people from visiting the grave. Ruth Richardson and A. B. Ewen in turn used the debate over Plath's unmarked grave to make a plea for a public memorial to be set up in honour of this poet (be this in Yorkshire or London). Comparing the erection of a funereal memorial with the posthumous publications of her writings, they suggested that the successful management of the corpus of her work by the inheritors of her estate had been conducted at the expense of the former. Other voices, however, rose to criticize, in Margaret Drabble's words, 'this Sylvia Plath graveyard business'; Drabble felt that it was ridiculous to assume a connection between a tangible public sign, marking the dead poet's remains, and the assurance that her work will not vanish from public memory. Equally critical was...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420105333