And yet, to stand there, beside her grave, was to feel afresh the presence of a life that had somehow fused itself with mine. When it comes to writers, it is often their work that moves us: words we wish we could have written ourselves if we had the patience or talent to do so. At other times, it is their lives, the heroism as captured in biographies or biopics for the particularly famous, and that dogged intent to put text to the hazy stuff of life. Or we might relate to the circumstances in which they grew up, finding their tribulations very similar to our own. Like many others, I have long admired the work of Sylvia Plath and have found in it a deep affinity; in The Bell Jar (1963), the first of her works that I read, I found the neurotic ambition of my girlhood entirely justified and felt much less alone for it—as have countless other high-achieving young women, I’d later learn. A few years after reading the novel, I reveled in the unapologetic honesty of Plath’s journals, which spurred me to record my own life with a similar candor and attention.
Plath’s extensive records of her life have rendered her a cultural figure whose reputation forms a remarkably consistent montage. To remember Plath is to recall the all-American girlhood and the cakes; Ariel (1965) and the man-eating flames; and, in between, the move to England, the tumultuous marriage, the unusually cold winter of 1963, when it all came to an end. Within this collection of selves, I came to prefer the narrative of a hungry Plath, someone who loved the world so much that the weight became too much to bear. Such is the version of Plath that made significant advances in the cultural imagination with Heather Clark’s 2020 biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath; after years of biographies that pathologized the writer, here was one that, in Clark’s words, set out “to free Plath from the cultural baggage of the past fifty years.” We read Plath at her lowest, petty over others’ successes or nursing heartbreak in stuffy dormitories, but we also read her at her most powerful: devouring books, channeling words, drinking, dancing, shouting, biting, and, above all, mapping visions of her own success in a time when women were discouraged from being more than mothers and wives.
To achieve as much meant to follow Plath’s wise instruction-to-self that she penned as a freshman at Smith College: “Read widely of others experiences in thought and action—stretch to others even though it hurts and strains and would be more comfortable to snuggle back in the comforting cotton-wool of blissful ignorance!” Yet it is prudent to consider the evident warnings of trying too diligently to live multiple lives. From Plath’s journal in 1951: “I am feeling depressed from being exposed to so many lives, so many of them exciting, new to my realm of experience.” 1952: “How to justify myself, my bold, brave humanitarian faith?” 1953, a month before her first suicide attempt: “Your room is not your prison. You are.”
It is tempting to ask who, or which, is the more authentic Plath, and any resultant conjecturing would not be a new feat. Plath’s once-husband Ted Hughes, in his foreword to Plath’s journals, separates her “real self”—the writer behind Ariel, Plath’s final poetry collection—from the “lesser and artificial selves that had monopolized the words” up until the last three months of her life. On Plath’s stature in popular culture, Maggie Nelson’s cynical quip that “to be called the Sylvia Plath of anything is a bad thing” suggests that there is such a thing as “a Sylvia Plath” archetype applicable beyond a life really lived. One could say that the wealth of narratives on whom Plath was speaks to an abundance of distinguishable selves, united only by their creator’s need to examine her life for the sake of making meaningful art.
And what does the art say? Perhaps the text most revelatory for this question is Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, which was first published under a pseudonym due to its remarkable resemblance to Plath’s real life. The novel begins when the narrator, 19-year-old Esther Greenwood, lands a prestigious internship at a New York magazine, just as Plath did with Mademoiselle in 1953. She aspires to be a writer, but her aspiration falters when she becomes deeply self-conscious about her ineptitude; in a famous scene where she imagines her dream-selves as fat purple figs on a tree, they beckon to her with lofty promises of professorship, editorship, and a bevy of exotic lovers. Yet wanting “each and every one of them,” Esther believes, means “losing all the rest.” When her doubts are affirmed by an unexpected rejection from a writing program, Esther’s paranoia of unfulfilled ambition drives her to the brink of death, precipitating a physical and psychic break from the American 1950s in which her story takes place. Given the claustrophobia of her circumstances, it is unsurprising that the Esther Greenwood of Plath’s fiction sees the world as something cruel and absurd. She can rely on no one but herself to make sense of the way the world is. Throughout the novel, she tries on multiple identities: she fashions herself into a model student, an unassuming “Elly Higginbottom” from Chicago, and a volunteer in a maternity ward. For a moment, she considers becoming a nun. But she is always trapped “under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air”—unable to escape not only the person she really is, but also the limits of what other people want, or need, her to be.
Aside from reflecting on how an era and its politics affect a young woman, The Bell Jar puts the precarity of selfhood on trial. The novel is full of mirrors: Esther sees her reflection in a New York elevator, a compact vanity kit studded with shells, a handheld mirror provided by an unassuming nurse when she is hospitalized for depression. The novel itself can be considered a mirror to Plath’s own coming-of-age, an example of fiction catching a certain light from life that creates clearer visions of one’s experience. But questions of selfhood are not limited to self-referential plots. On an even broader level, when a work is contrasted with—or compared to—a life, there emerges the possibility that writers live not just one existence but many: made real not only by the act of writing but also by the interrogation of reading, which we readers, in all our diversity and idiosyncrasies, partake in always when entering the world of a text. Like so, The Bell Jar lingered with me, and I ended up in Heptonstall decades after its publication, with flowers.
In his landmark 1967 essay “Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that the acts of reading and critiquing should entail “the destruction of every point of origin”—a process that requires readers to set aside an author’s biography and intent when engaging with their work. During the self-erasing process of writing, he argues, an author ceases to be a text’s creator and becomes part of the text’s many possible meanings, meanings that materialize when given shape by readers whose interpretations and consequent actions bring a text to life.
Yet Barthes does not do away with the author completely. He recognized, as we feel when reading a book that speaks to us, that there are occasions in which readers need authors to be real, intentional people on the other side of a sacred exchange. How someone once saw the world can, in ways weird and wonderful, become the way we make sense of ours, and in later writings—most notably in Sade/Fourier/Loyola (1971) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973)—Barthes describes this process as one that evokes a special readerly desire: a unique kind of gratitude for the author’s ability to have “[written] fragments of our own daily lives.”
The day I visited Plath’s grave, I came upon an old man and three women huddled together by the benches in the cemetery, talking. There was the sensation that we recognized each other despite our being strangers. One of the women, in a woolly hat, said that the dark-cloaked and bereted Jessica was the Plath expert among them: she had interviewed hundreds of visitors for a dissertation on the psychology of literary pilgrimage. Later, Jessica would inform me that the small cry I let out upon seeing the grave was tame compared to other events she had witnessed in Heptonstall. Once, she recounted, someone had called an ambulance for a young woman lying prostrate beside the grave. Medical personnel would later learn that the woman was simply mid-séance.
At Jessica’s invitation, I followed her to the 16th-century cottage where she was staying for the weekend. She had traveled to Heptonstall from London, where she worked as a poet, and we sat talking for several hours in a wood-paneled living room with vaulted ceilings, she on the flowered armchair, I on the sofa. During our time together, Jessica told me illustrious stories from her life: how her parents had first met in a New York taxi (like Plath, Jessica was an American-turned-Englishwoman); how she dated a Nobel laureate-to-be in college; how she almost met Ted Hughes one time. So it was that what I had anticipated as an afternoon of insights into Plath became a kaleidoscope of anecdotes from our own lives. Though there were copies of Plath’s poetry collections on the coffee table beside me, they remained mostly untouched by the time we left the house, Jessica toward town and I to my temporary room, where I mulled over my conversation with Jessica and read Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998)—what critics believe is his only explicit response to his relationship with Plath—while listening to the rain.
It rained incessantly that weekend on the Yorkshire Moors. The water dribbled down the sloped cobblestone streets and soaked the gravel, making the ground squelch. Decades before, Plath walked those same roads, enthralled by the fact that the Brontë sisters had lived just 10 miles north. From one of Plath’s first visits, there is a photograph of her sitting on a low stone wall in Yorkshire with a typewriter balanced on her left shin. With one hand she keeps the machine steady as she pulls a slip of paper from the carriage; her neck is bent forward, her sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Hughes would write the moment into a poem 42 years later, “Wuthering Heights,” first published in The Birthday Letters: “It was all / Novel and exhilarating to you. / The book becoming a map. Wuthering Heights / Withering into perspective.”
Though I haven’t seen Jessica since that February, I wonder where I might see her next. I have thought about her wherever I encounter Plath in England: at Newnham College, Cambridge, where Plath was a Fulbright Scholar; in London, where she rented a flat in W. B. Yeats’s old house; on the Google Maps platform zoomed into North Tawton in Devon, where Plath and Hughes raised their children. I know that Jessica has been to these places before, as have other readers who find, in Plath’s biography, scaffolding for their own lives—as if revisiting the ordinary scenes in someone else’s life gives weight to what shapes ours: the loves and losses, tantrums and joys, contained within a series of landscapes that wither the mundane into startling perspective.
There is a journal entry from Plath’s time as a freshman at Smith in which she mulls the idea of life after death. She is unconvinced that her spirit “is unique and important enough” to continue into a heaven that is beautiful and blissful and pink. Yet she recalls Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer behind The Little Prince (1943), and his mourning of all lost lives, “the secret treasures” that these lives hold. “I loved Exupery,” Plath goes on to write, newly inspired by the mental wanderings that journaling enables. “I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone. Is that life after death—mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring? Maybe. I do not know.”
I walked by Plath’s final home in London last April, two months after I visited her grave. The building, an unassuming copy of the adjacent houses save for a blue plaque with Yeats’s name, is now privately occupied. There is nothing to suggest that this site was where Sylvia Plath once lived, let alone died, though one can imagine why a real estate agent would be reluctant to advertise this fact.
To remember Plath was to watch myself stare at the blue plaque beside the door, recalling the way one Heptonstall resident, bored perhaps by people like me, had yelled, “Her grave is over there!” the day I meandered around the cemetery to see who else had been buried there. It was a humiliating moment, in which my expanding glossary of selves justified by Plath’s language—the good girl, the hard worker, the writer, the monster—collapsed into a flimsy and two-dimensional cutout of a literary tourist, someone who could be one of Jessica's respondents. On Fitzroy Road in London, I endured that undignified flattening as much as I could before scurrying off into a nearby park, where I did the most Plathian thing I could: opened my journal and wrote about what happened.
What would it take to let a writer fully die, in Barthes’s sense of the phenomenon? If it is a challenge to forget the people who create the works that move us, there is an invitation to remember them in ways that render us vessels for whatever lessons they had. I may have visited Plath at her grave and the house where she took her life, but she remains neither below the Yorkshire ground nor in that infamous kitchen. We catch glimpses of her in the books and biographies, the poems, and the prose, though here she appears suspended as if trapped in amber. Sixty years since she left the world, she remains most dynamically alive not in one place or another but in every blank page, from where she observes us with her keen poet’s eye demanding us to watch, to feel, to write.
Jimin Kang is a Seoul-born, Hong Kong–raised, and England-based writer.