"White: It Is a Complexion of the
Mind": The Enactment of
Whiteness in Sylvia Plath's Poetry
Poet Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts to a first generation Polish-American father and a second-generation Austrian-American mother. Educated at Smith College, she wrote and published numerous early works. The summer after college graduation, she met the English poet, Ted Hughes, and soon married. During the next six years--the last of her young life--Plath settled in England; continued to write poetry, fiction, and children's literature; gave birth to two children; and also supported her husband's writing career. In the early 1960s, although her poetry was becoming more frequently published and well-reviewed, Plath's marriage slipped into turmoil, and the burdens of a writing life along with the ensuing threat of single-parenthood added to a number of factors that caused Plath to take her own life in England in 1963.
To a certain degree, Plath understood herself as a privileged person. Her poetry, much of which focuses on discovering, recognizing, and dramatizing the self, sometimes acknowledges and sometimes evades a mindfulness about the privileges associated with a self embodied in whiteness. During her years at Smith College, Plath wrote in her journal of the "terrifying" realization of her multiple privileges ( Journals61). Ostensibly, these privileges terrify her because, regardless of her advantages, she still occasionally succumbs to insatiable desires for more: more achievements, more comforts, more recognition, and more understanding of herself. However, Plath only affirms the terror of recognizing one's privilege; she rarely quarrels with or repudiates its endowments.