Why did Sylvia Plath kill herself? The poet’s battle with depression

By okaybliss — ON May 04, 2023
Sylvia Plath
Penrodas Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Sixty years after Sylvia Plath’s death, the inquest into her meticulously planned suicide and the reasons behind it continues. Plath lived 30 years, writing timeless confessional poems published in collections like Ariel. She produced her best work in the twilight of her life as she struggled with depression and a cheating husband. 

Sylvia Plath likely committed suicide due to severe depression

On 11th February 1963, Plath woke up around 4 am and tended to her toddlers, Freida and Nicholas. She placed extra blankets in their room and left butter, milk, and bread for them so they’d have something to eat. 

Plath taped up the kitchen door, opened the taps of the gas oven, and placed her head inside. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Plath sealed the kitchen to protect her children from the poisonous gas. 

The poet didn’t leave a suicide note. However, she documented her struggles with depression fastidiously in letters and poems.

Plath first attempted suicide in 1953 following rejection from a Harvard writing program. She received electroshock therapy as treatment. Plath wrote that her life chaotically fluctuated from delirium to depression. 

Plath had depression at a time when people misunderstood the condition. Per The Guardian, doctors ‘labeled depression as neurosis, hypochondriasis, and hysteria’. Depression patients were shunned and treated with disdain, mislabeled as people who couldn’t handle their problems. 

Plath likely suffered from clinical depression made worse by the turmoil in her personal life. She had to raise two children alone during a cold winter while fighting a virus infection. 

Plath’s family had a history of depression – her father’s mother, sister, and niece suffered severe depression. She likely inherited the condition from her father. 

Days before her suicide, she spoke to Dr. John Horder, mentioning suicidal thoughts as one of the symptoms of her current depressive episode. Horder prescribed antidepressants and tried to have Plath admitted. When Plath refused, he arranged for a live-in nurse. 

Plath committed suicide before the medication took full effect. “No-one who saw the care with which the kitchen was prepared could have interpreted her action as anything but an irrational compulsion,” Horder told The Guardian. Plath described her depression as ‘owl’s talons clenching my heart’. 

Nicholas’ suicide in 2009 following struggles with depression suggests that he inherited the condition from his mother, Plath, as she likely did from her father. “He had been battling depression for some time,” Nicholas’ sister, Frieda, said following his death. 

The breakdown of Plath’s marriage could have contributed to her suicide

Radical feminists hounded Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, in the seventies and eighties, openly accusing him of murder. They claimed that his infidelity and abuse pushed Plath to suicide. 

Hughes looked like he had something to hide. He destroyed one of Plath’s journals, written in the latter stages of her life, allegedly to protect his children. Hughes stated that another volume mysteriously disappeared. 

The journals likely contained Plath’s thoughts about her husband’s affair with their friend Assia Wevill. Hughes’ cheating caused his separation from Plath. He pursued a relationship with Wevill.

Elizabeth Sigmund wrote in The Guardian in 1999 that Sylvia likely learned Wevill was pregnant, deepening her despair. Further, days before Plath’s suicide, Ted’s play The Difficulties of a Bridegroom, depicting a man’s obsession with his mistress’ body, was broadcast on the Third Programme. 

“The public humiliation and loss of dignity must have been unbearable for Sylvia,” Sigmund writes. Reports of violence in Plath’s marriage emerged in letters she sent to her former psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher. 

Plath’s relationship with Ted had a violent beginning. One of her famous passages reads

“I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off. . . . And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”

In her letters to Beuscher, Plath wrote that Hughes ‘beat me up physically’, ‘seems to want to kill me’, and ‘told me openly he wished me dead’. In a foreword to a volume of the letters titled The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Frieda, only a toddler at the time, defends her father. 

“My father was not the wife-beater that some would wish to imagine she was,” Frieda writes. She claims that Plath maliciously portrayed Ted as an abuser as revenge for his infidelity: “Now that the relationship was disintegrating, what woman would want to paint her exiting husband in anything other than the darkest colours?”