The Heroine’s Journey in Sylvia Plath’s Life and Poetry

Written by Sage Calder; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


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The Restored Edition of “Ariel”

I recently found myself rereading Sylvia Plath’s final manuscript, Ariel and other poems.  I had read the collection several times before, but this was my first time reading the “Restored Edition” — the manuscript exactly as Plath left it. This edition also contains a foreword that casts an entirely different light on the book for me. In the introduction, Plath’s  daughter, Frieda, notes that her mother described the book as, “beginning with the word ‘Love,’ and ending with the word ‘Spring.’” Frieda recognizes that her mother wrote the book to talk about the end of her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and move toward a new life. In contrast to these intentions, Plath left Ariel as her final manuscript before committing suicide in 1963.

It is a constant struggle to discuss Sylvia Plath’s work as an author and poet without bringing her personal life into the discussion. This seems to be a struggle that affects female artists far more than male artists. As Frieda notes in her foreword, “…Ariel’s notoriety came from being the manuscript on her desk when she died, rather than simply being an extraordinary manuscript…”

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Plath with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes

Reading Frieda’s foreword, which is both insightful and earnest, I began thinking about Ariel in relation to the heroine’s journey — first as a collection of poetry, and also as the final collection of poetry before Plath’s death.

In her foreword, Frieda discusses a “unique Ariel voice,” one that had, “an urgency, freedom and force that was quite new in her work.” This voice came as Plath emerged from her marriage to live on her own with her two children. In Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey, Plath’s illusion of the perfect world was broken with her husband’s infidelity. She writes about her pain in poems at the beginning of the collection such as “Barren Woman” and “Thalidomide.” Throughout Ariel we watch Plath work through these issues in preparation for her separation from the security of love. The act of her writing this poetry represents Plath’s descent; she recognizes her faults, she enters the eye of the storm and emerges from it. All of the poems are in the unique Ariel voice, but as the book goes on, we see poems of support. In the poem, “Medusa,” for example, Plath writes – “I didn’t call you at all/ Nevertheless, nevertheless/ You steamed to me over the sea/ Fat and red, a placenta//Paralyzing the kicking lovers…” It is clear that when Plath refers to Medusa in this poem, she is referring to something within herself — the part of her that is able to paralyze and leave lovers, and the one who is able to say to her deceased father in the infamous poem, “Daddy” — “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

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A facsimile of one Plath’s drafts of the poem, “Daddy”

By shedding the men in her life who hurt her and reconnecting with her own feminine power, Plath is tracking toward a heroine’s journey in Ariel. The quest of the heroine is wholeness, which normally implies continuing to live your life. In her real life, Plath was unable to do this — she killed herself and was never able to separate herself from the presence of her husband, since she continued to receive financial support from him and even potentially sought reconciliation. I am not Plath and could not possibly know her life well enough to characterize it as a hero’s journey or a failed heroine’s journey.

Instead, I look to the last poem, which indeed ends with the word “spring.” Plath ends the collection with a series of poems about bees and in her final stanza wonders — “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/ Succeed in banking their fires/ To enter another year?” We have come to associate these bees with Plath herself. And she ends — “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Plath succeeds in presenting to us a work displaying the heroine’s journey — she writes herself as a heroine who succeeds in leaving her husband and other harmful men in her life behind her. Like the bees, the Plath who is the speaker of the Ariel poems not only plans on surviving into the spring — she already has.

The Heroine’s Journey of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a historical fiction novel that profiles the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini resists telling Keckley’s story as a hero’s journey arc in favor of a more complicated, seering heroine’s journey.  Keckley, an African American  lived from 1818 to 1907. She lived as a slave for thirty-seven years before earning her freedom by becoming an expert seamstress for wealthy women in the pre-civil war Washington D.C. area.

Engraving_of_Elizabeth_Keckly (1)When Abraham Lincoln is elected President, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln selects Keckley from among numerous applicants to be her personal “modiste.” As her modiste, Keckley has the responsibility for designing and creating the First Lady’s gowns and dressing her for important occasions.  Mary Todd Lincoln is viewed as an outsider by Washington society women, and Keckley becomes the First Lady’s trusted confidante. If the story had ended here, it would be a hero’s journey arc – e.g., former slave overcomes great odds to become a member of the White House’s trusted staff through her own ingenuity and skill during the years in which Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation.  But Keckley’s life and Chiaverini’s story are more complex and don’t end with Keckley becoming a celebrated seamstress and Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante.

Mrs. Lincoln was a complicated woman with many physical maladies who never fully recovered from her grief of losing her youngest son shortly after Lincoln was elected President. Keckley’s son dies in the Civil War, but but Mrs. Lincoln is so fraught by her own grief that she cannot empathize with Keckley or the thousands of other mothers whose sons are killed in the war.  Her husband’s assassination as she sits next to him is yet another terrible blow.  Mrs. Lincoln is portrayed as being unprepared to leave the White House and live on her own after her husband’s assassination. She has grown psychologically dependent on Keckley’s support, so Keckley reluctantly agrees to accompany her to Chicago although Mrs. Lincoln is unable to consistently pay her.

Elizabeth_Keckly_UNCChiaverini chronicles Keckley’s post-White House life with the increasingly debt-ridden and mentally compromised Mrs. Lincoln. When the money runs out, Keckley tries to earn a living by writing  her remembrances of her time in the White House, by writing her remembrances o her time in the White House, but is betrayed by her publisher. Although Keckley intends her  portray Mrs. Lincoln with sympathy, the book causes a public outrage in large part because Keckley, an unschooled African American, has dared to give voice to her impressions o the inner workings of the White House. Moreover, her publisher ignores her instructions and  adds the contents of Mrs. Lincoln’s confidential letters to Keckley.  Not only does Keckley fail to earn any much-needed money from the book, she is scorned by the public and Mrs. Lincoln refuses forgive her, see her, or believe in her good intentions.  The novel follows Keckley’s subsequent efforts to recover her life as an independent seamstress and her years as a dressmaking instructor in a college. When she suffers a stroke, she is gain without means and is forced to reside   at the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children a few blocks from the White House. Keckley endures a multitude of hopes and heartbreaks, and Chiaverini offers no “final” triumph (or failure).

In the book’s final chapter, Chiaverini depicts Keckley, then in her 80’s, being interviewed by a young reporter who asks  what it is like to be so famous. Keckley is described as being fully aware of the world as it is—fame and fortune can wax and wane.  Effort, intention, and justice play a role, but success is  often short-lived and followed by heartbreak.  Keckley informs the reporter that knowing famous people does not mean that she herself was famous, and that it would be fool hardy to take pride in something so fickle and fleeting as fame.

9780142180358-lMrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker closes with an affirmation of the complexity and dignity of Keckley’s whole life, including her losses. Instead of focusing on Keckley’s unusual role in the White House, Chiaverini observes that “[Keckley] had lived a full and fascinating life. She had known the most remarkable people of the age, and she had never refused to help the humble and down trodden.  Despite its disappointments and losses and heartbreaks, she would not have wished her life a single day shorter—nor, when the time came for her to join the many friends and loved ones who had gone on before her, would she demand an hour more.”

To learn more about Jennifer Chiaverini and/or read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, consult your local library or go to https://jenniferchiaverini.com.