When a female author dies by suicide, it defines her. From Virginia Woolf to Sarah Kane, everything she did, everything she created during her life becomes part of a death-drive narrative. When a male author dies prematurely, it is a tragic stopper in his creative output – we mourn the poetry Dylan Thomas never wrote after he died aged 39 in 1953, for example, distinct from his self-destructive lifestyle. Woolf’s novels and Kane’s plays are dubbed as being manifestations of mental illness, while Thomas’s poetry is brilliant in spite of, rather than because of, his alcoholism and troubled life.
Chief among those female artists who have become defined by their suicide is the US poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who died on 11 February 1963. Since then, her name has become a by-word for female angst. Her works represent rebellious but depressed young women as evidenced by their appearance in pop-culture settings – Kat in the 1999 teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You clutches a copy of The Bell Jar, as does Maeve in recent Netflix series Sex Education. Plath has become a crude symbol of the girl outsider who rejects conventional standards of femininity to take her life, and death, into her own hands.
The impact of this interpretation’s proliferation is to devalue women’s engagements with Plath. To read her coming-of-age novel The Bell Jar, for example, is seen by many as a girlish rite of passage towards more serious literature, a perception often reflected in the YA-style cover designs. This isn’t the case for narratives of male comings-of-age, from the works of JD Salinger to David Foster Wallace. But the truth is that Plath was one of the first authors to tap into the raw reality of being a woman. Before feminism’s second wave and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Plath wrote of her discontent with a woman’s inferior place, her sexual urges, and how these pressures affected her mental health.