Sylvia Plath was born to Otto and Aurelia Plath in 1932 and spent her early childhood in the seaport town of Winthrop, Massachusetts. Otto Plath died when Plath was eight years old, and she moved with her mother, younger brother, and maternal grandparents to Wellesley, an inland suburb of Boston. Plath excelled in school and developed a strong interest in writing and drawing. In 1950, she won a scholarship to attend Smith College, where she majored in English. Following junior year, Plath was invited to serve as guest editor for a woman’s magazine in New York. After returning to Wellesley for the remainder of the summer, she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.
Plath went on to complete a highly successful college career. She won the prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England, where she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They married in 1956, and after a brief stint in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith, they moved back to England in 1959. Plath gave birth to her first child, Freda, the following year. The same year, she published The Colossus, her first volume of poetry. Her second child, Nicholas, was born in 1962. Hughes and Plath separated shortly afterward; her instability and his affair with another woman had placed great strain on their marriage. Plath and her children moved to a flat in London, where she continued to write poetry. The poems she wrote at this time were later published in a collection titled Ariel (1965). In February 1963, she gassed herself in her kitchen, ending her life at the age of thirty-one.
Sylvia Plath’s literary persona has always provoked extreme reactions. Onlookers tend to mythologize Plath either as a feminist martyr or a tragic heroine. The feminist martyr version of her life holds that Plath was driven over the edge by her misogynist husband, and sacrificed on the altar of pre-feminist, repressive 1950s America. The tragic heroine version of her life casts Plath as a talented but doomed young woman, unable to deal with the pressures of society because of her debilitating mental illness. Although neither myth presents a wholly accurate picture, truth exists in both.