19 November (1952): Sylvia Plath to Aurelia Plath

In this pained letter, dated approximately one year prior to her first documented suicide attempt, Sylvia Plath writes to her mother Aurelia about the sorrows of academia. The negative portrayal of Mrs. Greenwood in The Bell Jar gave many readers the impression that Sylvia  had a poor relationship with her mother. But, as this letter indicates, Sylvia was close with Aurelia, and came to rely on her mother during depressive episodes. At the time of this letter’s writing Sylvia was studying at Smith College for her Master’s.

November 19, 1952

…God, will I be glad to get home for a few days of rest. I am sorry to have to admit it, but I am in a rather tense emotional and mental state, and have been tense and felt literally sick for about a week now…a physical manifestation of a very frustrated mental state. The crux of the matter is my attitude toward life—hinging on my science course. I have practically considered committing suicide to get out of it, it’s like having my nose rubbed in my own slime. It just seems that I am running on a purposeless treadmill, behind and paralyzed in science, dreading each day of the horrible year ahead when I should be reveling in my major. I have become really frantic: small choices and events seem insurmountable obstacles, the core of life has fallen apart. I am obsessed by wanting to escape from that course. I curse myself for not having done it this summer. I try to learn the barren dry formulas. Sick, I wonder why? why?why? I feel actually ill when I open the book, and figure I am wasting ten hours a week for the rest of the year. It affects all the rest of my life; I am behind in my Chaucer unit, feeling sterile in creative writing. My whole life is mastered by a horrible fear of this course, of the dry absurdities, the artificial formulas and combinations. I ask myself why didn’t I take Geology, anything tangible would have been a blessing. Everyone else is abroad, or falling in love with their courses. I feel I have got to escape this, or go mad. How can I explain the irrevocable futility I feel!…Life seems a mockery. I have the idea that if I could get out of this course, even for second semester, I would be able to see light ahead. But I can’t go on like this…I hate formulas, I don’t give a damn about valences, artificial atoms and molecules. It is pseudoscience—all theory; nothing to grasp. I am letting it ruin my whole life. I am really afraid to talk it over with a psychiatrist (symbol of a parent, or priest confessor) because they might make me drop my activities (Press Board in particular) and spend half my time pounding formulas and petty mathematical relationships (which I have long since forgotten) into my head, when I basically don’t want to learn them. To be wasting all this year of my life, obsessed by this course, paralyzed by it, seems unbearable. I feel that absolved of it—with some sign of light ahead—I could again begin to love.

Oh, Mother, I hate to bother you with this, but I could cry. Life is so black, anyway, with my two best friends, Dick and Martha, so far removed I hardly see them. And this course: I actually am worried over my mental state! What earthly good is this going to do me in my future life? I hate it, find it hideous, loathsome. I have built it up to a devouring, malicious monster. Anything but formulas, anything but. And it is only a grade I curse. God, what a mess my life is. And I know I am driving myself to distraction. Everything is empty, meaningless. This is not education. It is hell; and how could I ever persuade the college authorities to let me drop a year course at the half year? How could I convince the psychiatrist I would go mad if I didn’t escape from these horrible formulas and, for me, dry, useless chunks of memory? My reason is leaving me, and I want to get out of this. Everybody is happy, but this has obsessed me from the day I got here.

I really am in a state of complete and horrible panic. I feel on the one hand that I must get out of this course: I can’t reconcile the memory and rote with my philosophy of a creative education, and I am in a very embarrassing position as far as the authorities of the college are concerned: I have managed to make a pretty good impression so far, but to have me go insane over what I thought was a horrible, wasteful course would only make them expel me or something…Science is, to me, useless drudgery for no purpose. A vague, superficial understanding of molecules and atoms isn’t going to advance my understanding of life. I can’t deny that to myself.

Oh! Every fibre of me rebels against the unnecessary torture I am going through. If only I wanted to understand it, but I don’t. I am revolted by it, obsessed. How can I ever explain this to anyone plausibly, even the psychiatrist? I am driven inward, feeling hollow. No rest cure in the infirmary will cure the sickness in me. I will wait till Thanksgiving before getting actively desperate. But oh! how very desolate and futile and trapped I feel!

Love,

Your hollow girl, Sivvy

 From Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963. Edited by Aurelia Schober Plath. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. pp. 502.

FURTHER READING

Aurelia Plath speaks about about her relationship to Sylvia.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Aurelia Plath discusses  the unusual lack of obituaries for her daughter. 

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