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Textual Conversations - The Context of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Katriel discusses the Plath and Hughes' context within the scope of module A!

English Team Katriel Tan and Marko Beocanin

Unlike a bell jar, literature over different contextual landscapes are dynamic and ever changing.

The relationship between Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was seemingly characterised as tumultuous and chaotic. They married in 1956 and lived together in the United States of America, until moving to England in 1959. Both poetry anthologies are written in the genre of confessional poetry, and when analysed together in Module A, create a poignant and multifaceted reflection of their relationship, amplifying their respective personal experiences and contextual anxieties. To get a Band 6 result, you need to be able to demonstrate a strong understanding of the way in which context impacts an authors’ perspective and the audiences’ interpretation.

So, let’s get you sorted with the context for Plath and Hughes!

Is context even important for Module A?

Remember, context = values.

Whilst all modules in the HSC English Advanced course are greatly affected by context, Module A - Textual Conversations lends itself greatly to a specific and nuanced understanding of the context of each composer. Personally, I realised that context is super, super, super important to Module A. This is because the module itself is a reflection of the way in which texts across different contextual landscapes portray the universality of different keystone values in our humanity. As a uniquely comparative module, context becomes essential to understand how the responding author presents resonances in values or concerns, or why the responding author purposefully constructs dissonances between their texts. It is important to understand that context impacts whether authors choose to reframe, challenge or condemn various different values. Every ‘textual conversation’ point must be backed by context - it is only because of this change in context that the dialogue between the two texts exists. You must always apply the context :)

In the case of Plath and Hughes, the multiplicity of perspectives confront responders about the subjectivity of a single narrative, urging audiences to consider how personal, socio-cultural and historical contextual features shape the meaning of a text over time and space! It is important to note that due to the genre of their poetry, personal context becomes increasingly crucial to understand. This is not to say that historical or socio-cultural context isn’t important at all - it’s just something to be mindful of!

Sylvia Plath’s Context

Personal Context

Sylvia Path was born to mother Aurelia Schober Plath (a second generation American Austrian who taught shorthand writing) and father Otto Plath (a German professor of biology) on the 27th of October 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, America. Her father was an entomologist, taking special interest in the study of bees. This context is explicitly reflected in her poem “The Arrival of the Bee Box” where she uses the extended metaphor of bees to represent her unstable thoughts and struggle for control over her creative voice and mind:

“The box is locked,
it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.”

After the birth of Warren in 1935, Otto’s health began to decline as he misdiagnosed himself as having lung cancer, refusing to seek treatment until 1940. They also had a turbulent relationship and this was further complicated by his early death - this is mirrored in “Daddy”:

“Daddy, I have had to kill you.   
You died before I had time——”

Plath had always excelled academically, and in 1950 was admitted to Smith’s College in Massachusetts. However, Plath began to battle severe depression, and attempted to take her own life at 20. She was immediately sent to a psychiatrist who admitted her to electroshock therapy. Her suicidal attempts plague her poetry, as in “A Birthday Present” Plath seems to glorify death as an object that will offer her rebirth and freedom:

“Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.”

She eventually recovered, and met Ted Hughes whilst on the prestigious Fulbright scholarship in Cambridge, 1956. The two were married by June 1956. Plath briefly worked as a teacher, but soon quit to focus on writing. After attending writing seminars by Robert Lowell, she was inspired to adopt a more confessional style in her poetry, and wrote openly about her suicide attempt and depressive episodes. With her mental state in decline again, she restarted psychiatric therapy. In unpublished letters to her therapist between 1960-1963, Plath alleged that Hughes had physically beat her in the days before her first miscarriage. At this point Plath had become increasingly aware that Hughes had been cheating on her throughout her relationship, resulting in Plath becoming incredibly distraught. This instigated many mental health episodes in which she would destroy her own work. In 1962, Plath and Hughes separated and Plath took care of their two children. During one of the worst winters in English histories, Plath wrote over 26 poems which would be included in Ariel. At the age of 30, on February 11 1963, Plath committed suicide by placing her head in a gas oven.

Looking for a Plath and Hughes’ exemplar essay? Check this out!

The effect of historical context on Plath’s poems

Within her collection Plath makes reference to many different historical events. Whilst some of these overt references have been deemed as insensitive, it is still of worth to have some background knowledge of Plath’s historical context.

The rise of Nazism in WWII impacted some of the content of her poetry. Whilst her father, Otto, did not openly support the Nazis, Plath makes explicit references and comparisons to the Holocaust in her poems:

“An engine. An engine
chuffing me off like a Jew
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen”

  • In ‘Daddy’

“A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.”

  • In ‘Lady Lazarus’

Plath’s extreme comparisons to the Jews, emphasises the theme of victimisation present with her works, yet these references are still seen to be extremely inappropriate. Much of her characterisation of her father is grounded in vitriolic Nazi imagery - in particular, images of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a genocide of European Jews led by the Nazis from 1941 to 1945 throughout WWII. Many were inhumanely experimented upon by Nazi scientists and kept in barren living conditions where they were physically abused and deprived of basic human rights. In 1942, the Nazis enacted “The Final Solution”, which involved exterminating and killing every Jew possible. By the end of the war, over 6 million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust.

Plath also invocates the tragic nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII within her poetry. In July 1945, the American government offered the Japanese government an ultimatum: total surrender or “prompt and utter destruction” - and after they declined two bombs were dropped. This killed over 40000 people instantly. After the war, the irradiated landscape caused countless more deaths due to cancer, heat burns, and birth defects. Plath was extremely wary of nuclear attacks, and her poem “Ariel” was written at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event is also explicitly referenced in a poem studied in Module A:

“Devilish leopard!
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.

Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.”

  • In ‘Fever 103’

Following the end of WWII, Plath also witnessed the Cold War - which was an ongoing, subdued rivalry between the US and the USSR that lasted from 1946 to 1991. Her anxieties are omnipresent within her poetry, as the prevailing sense of tension and impending doom plague much of her work.

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Ted Hughes’ Context

Personal Context

Ted Hughes was born on the 17th of August 1930 in Yorkshire, England. His parents owned and worked at their news agency and tobacco shop. Like Plath, his poetry was recognised from an early age, published in his school magazine in 1946. In 1948, he received a scholarship to Pembroke College at Cambridge but undertook military service in the Royal Airforce until 1951 before accepting it and studying English. However, he did not enjoy the academic side of poetry and felt stifled by the rigid conventions of the subject. He graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and started to publish his poetry. In 1956, he met Plath and at this point he claimed to be unaware of her past suicide attempts and mental health issues. In the first few years of their marriage, his writing reflects a more joyous and cheerful outlook on their relationship, yet the underlying tension between them becomes more apparent over time due to Plath’s declining mental health. His clear emotional distance is depicted in the tone of “Fullbright Scholars”:

“Of Fulbright Scholars
Just arriving -
Or arrived. Or some of them.
Were you among them? I studied it,”

In 1963, after Plath’s suicide, Hughes faced huge public backlash by the popularising feminist movement. Plath became an icon for feminism - portrayed as a bright woman who was oppressed by the men in her life. His undermining of her narrative can be seen in “Fever”:

“What I was really saying was: ‘Stop crying wolf.’
Other thoughts, chilly, familiar thoughts,
Came across the tightrope: ‘Stop crying wolf,”

Feminist supporters were incredibly resentful towards him and even repeatedly vandalised Plath’s gravestone, carving off the name ‘Hughes’, yelling at him during his poetry readings and posing murder threats against him. This was exacerbated by the fact that he had gained full ownership over Plath’s literary collection, and claimed to have destroyed much of Plath’s writing to ‘protect’ their two children. In 1966, he published some of Plath’s poetry in the collection ‘Ariel’ - but frequently omitted and modified various poems that were damaging to his reputation. In 1998, he published his poetry anthology ‘Birthday Letters’ - an explicit and intimate commentary on his declining marriage with Plath, reflecting his attempts to seek redemption and reclaim his dignity. Later that year, Hughes died on October 28, 1988 by heart attack.

The Impacts of the Feminist Movement

Like many authors claimed by a feminist audience, Plath never openly considered herself a feminist. Yet, as Plath comments on the power of language to regain autonomy and undergo moral purification in a depraved society saturated by gender roles and expectations, her work has largely been seen as a reflection of ‘Second wave feminism’. Feminism is a popular piece of context to integrate when analysing Plath’s work!

Feminism itself can be defined as the political movement centred around providing equality for both men and women. This often involves dismantling the male-centric, or patriarchal view, that many societies uphold. Second wave feminism flourished throughout Plath’s lifetime and focused on broadening the movement to include a greater spectrum of women’s rights issues including domestic roles and self expression. It encouraged women to recognise the influence of the patriarchy in all facets of life - not just purely political freedoms.

In the case of Ted Hughes, it can be said that ‘Birthday Letters’ produces a textual conversation in which he reframes Plath’s assumed ‘misogynist’ depiction of him to exculpate himself from Plath’s feminist narrative within a fevered context cultivated by the Second Wave of Feminism.

Context is incredibly important when writing a Module A essay - and in the case of Plath x Hughes, having a good grasp on their personal context is incredibly crucial! I hope this helps you construct a great basis for your next Plath x Hughes essay! You got this!

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