Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman seeks to understand how the mythological figure of “Sylvia Plath” was created in the years since her death. Part biography, part literary criticism, part rumination on the role of biography itself, The Silent Woman unpacks the different views of Plath and argues for moderation. Essentially, as the title suggests, Plath is a woman who will be forever silent. The persistent efforts by scholars and critics to know her are futile. She will never be known; she is dead. What we do know about her has been changed, edited, revised, or erased depending on the person responsible. Her journals, published by Hughes years after her death, were edited to display a depressed mind. One incident Malcolm explains was particularly relevant to me, as I remembered reading this scene in the journals. Plath goes to Paris to follow a boy, not Hughes. She relates the details, and I am put off by the desperation in her words. The boy rejects her, as boys often do to desperate girls, and she goes to a coffee shop to order a cappuccino and write in her journal. She indulges herself for a moment, despairs of yet another boy gone, and comments on her loneliness, and the journal entry stops. Malcolm posits that the entry, in reality, did not end with this pity party, but rather continued to happier more optimistic topics. The upbeat part was edited out to give readers a more consistent view of Plath’s character. This type of posthumous editing happens time and again to Plath. Plath did commit suicide, so it is difficult to argue that she was emotionally stable, but to say that she was depressed all the time and hated every moment of her life, or to argue, as the movie Sylvia does, that she was posed to kill herself from the beginning is definitely a truncated view of her character.
Malcolm argues that Plath’s life has become a canvas for whomever is writing the current Plath biography. Those who want to see her as a depressive suicide-obsessive whiner will edit stories that prove otherwise, and they will use her poetry to under gird these ideas. Rarely do accounts deal with Plath as she probably was, a woman who was depressed at various points in her life, in a straining marriage, and capable of a full range of emotions at any one time. We will never know what happened to her the morning she stuck the towels under the doors, turned on the oven, and sat down in front of it. What we will know, however, is that this low moment may not be the reigning emotion of her life. Her poetry is expansive enough to allow for different emotions and scenes, just as her life presumably was. Malcolm’s efforts to expand our view of Plath’s life also helps to expand our view of her poetry.
When I taught Plath to my students, I would experiment. I would tell one class that she killed herself as part of the opening lecture to the unit. To another class, I would leave that information out. The class that knew about the suicide would “find” references to depression and loathing throughout the selected texts; they would not see her work as separate from this final, violent act. The other class was predictably more expansive in their findings. They would sense a low note of sadness, because it is there, but they would also find other things. They would see the beauty of her images and language; they would see the carefully wrought scenes. The class that didn’t know about her suicide would always, in my opinion, actually read Plath.
Because she can no longer speak to us, we are left as readers with a tremendous burden. Her poetry is confessional, so we believe that she must be confessing her suicide act through her words. We want to know why she did it, and we attempt to answer our questions in her poetry. As Malcolm suggests, and with this I agree, we lose her poetical brilliance and beauty when we choose to read her poetry as merely coming from a woman who killed herself.