The silent woman : Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes

by Janet Malcolm

Hardcover, 1994




New York : A.A. Knopf : 1994.


"Janet Malcolm has produced a brilliant, elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography, in which she takes as her example the various biographies of the poet Sylvia Plath." "The Silent Woman is an astonishing feat of criticism and literary detection. It is not a book about the life of Sylvia Plath, but about her afterlife: how her reputation was forged from the poems she wrote just before her suicide; how her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, as executor of her estate, tried to serve two masters - Plath's art and his own need for privacy; and how it fell to his sister, Olwyn Hughes, as literary agent for the estate, to protect him by limiting access to Plath's work. The Silent Woman, in the end, embodies a paradox: even as Malcolm brings her skepticism to bear on the claims of biography to present the truth about a life, a portrait of Sylvia Plath emerges that gives us a sense of "knowing" this tragic poet in a way we have never known her before." "The result is a provocative work that will dispel forever the innocence with which most of us have approached the reading of any biography. It will be talked about for years to come."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tercat
This is another book that I associate with a particular moment in my life. I read it all in one night, I think, in my dorm room.

The prevailing theory in my class about this one is that Ms. Malcolm was er... interested in Mr. Hughes.
LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
Reviewing this book is going to be a tad difficult and not just because it's been quite a few months since I finished reading it. For starters, I was expecting a more or less straightforward biography of Sylvia Plath, perhaps one focusing on the years of her marriage to Ted Hughes given the book's
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subtitle. So imagine my surprise when I found a book that is anything but that. The Silent Woman is part literary criticism, part musing on the role of the biographer, and part a defense of past biographers as well as supportive look at Ted Hughes and others. That being said, it's hard to judge a book as a biography when it's not really that at all.

However, in her defense, Malcolm does right away give the reader a clue that this book won't be a typical biography. Rather than start her book at the beginning of Plath's life, supplying the reader with historical details as to where and when Plath was born, Malcolm immediately kicks off the book by discussing Hughes's introduction to Plath's posthumous publications and launches from there into a discussion of the troubles in their marriage. Clearly this is going to be no ordinary biography, Malcolm seems to be saying.

The Silent Woman focuses a great deal on past biographies of Plath, with a particular interest in Bitter Fame, a biography written by Anne Stevenson, a former classmate of Malcolm's. Malcolm is at turns supportive and dismissive of this biography. Talking about it brings her to the topic of Olwyn Hughes, sister of Ted, and how much Ms. Hughes had a hand in dictating what could or could not be a part of that biography. A long section of the book includes a great number of details about Malcolm meeting with Stevenson on multiple occasions to discuss her experiences in writing Bitter Fame. I'm not sure that we learn very much about Plath through all this, although we do learn more about Ms. Hughes, Stevenson, and Malcolm herself.

As mentioned earlier, Malcolm is given often to contemplating on the art of biography writing. She rightly points out the problems inherent in writing a biography of a deceased person, reflecting on how much of what a biographer has to go on is hearsay from people in the deceased's social circle, who may or may not have known the subject well or may have vested interest in presenting themselves in a specific light. To that end, she is critical and wary of what some of Plath's friends have to say about her last days. She is more willing to entertain the idea of Plath as a less-than-perfect person with a great deal more problems that are let on by what she refers to as the "Plath myth" or the "Plath legend" (i.e., a sainted woman who is wronged by her husband, thus causing her to commit suicide). While she is more than likely right that Plath has become an idealized victim, Malcolm is almost too kind to the Hugheses. Again, she quite correctly points out how little the public can know of what truly happened in the marriage between Ted and Sylvia and how unfair it is for Hughes to be constantly vilified , but she seems to swing in the opposite direction of painting Ted Hughes as the saint and the victim. She is slightly less sympathetic in her portrayal of the controlling Olwyn Hughes, but she still seems to be willing to give a lot of benefit to Olwyn's unverified portraits of Plath as an aggressor.

Other parts of the book sidebar into critiques of Plath's poetry, occasionally using the poetry as a means to look at a specific event or person in Plath's life. Malcolm appears to suggest that Plath's poetry is inferior to Hughes's and that her shocking death launched her into a greater limelight than her work would have otherwise enjoyed, which seems a rather unknowable - and therefore quite unfair - thing to ponder.

Overall, I'm a bit perplexed by what to make of this book. Sure, I did come away knowing some more things about Plath - and the Hugheses - than I did before reading it. But I also learned far more about Plath's biographers and subjective opinions about her and her family than I gleaned actual facts. Perhaps that was Malcolm's end goal all along - to point out just how deceptive the art of biography writing is. This book did provide plenty of food for thought and did offer various alternative theories and ways of looking at things, although it ultimately failed to make me less "Team Sylvia" - if anything, for all Malcolm's attempts to paint the Hugheses in a better light, I walked away feeling less sympathetic towards them than before reading this book.
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LibraryThing member kgib
I'm a big fan of feminism that can look back on itself and be critical. Malcolm shows that Plath wasn't the faultless victim she was made out to be (because who wants a real person when you can have a symbol?). And Hughes is equally complicated.

Sidenote: Malcolm falls slightly on the side of
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saying that Plath's Holocaust allusions are problematic. And although I think that's true, listen to her reading of Daddy and Lazy Lazarus. It's so creepy and effective.
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