Sylvia Plath’s mother was the daughter of two German immigrants who lived in Massachusetts. She grew up highly educated and became a high school English teacher. Sylvia Plath’s father had a doctorate in classical languages at Boston University. When Sylvia’s mother decided to earn her Masters degree at Boston University, Otto and Riri were married after a brief courtship, January 1932, in Carson City, Nevada. By mutual agreement, the mother immediately quit her job and became a homemaker. Her first child, Sylvia, was born October 27, 1932. Sylvia’s brother Warren was born one and a half years later on April 27, 1935.
True to her word, Riri Plath was a devoted mother and wife. Otto Plath devoted himself to writing a book, so that the family had very little time for social life. Otto was also twenty years older than Riri and insisted on ruling the household with an iron hand. In fact, he even controlled the finances of the house to the degree that he insisted on doing all the shopping, groceries and otherwise. As controlling as he was, he was also a very loving and proud father and Sylvia and Warren grew up feeling loved by both parents.
However, in 1936, Otto began to get extremely sick. He refused to go to see a doctor and he continued to work through much of his illness, which the family believed to be lung cancer. Then in 1938-1939, Warren also became sick. First with pneumonia, then later with asthma and other bronchial ailments. Riri Plath exhausted her resources trying to take care of the two sick men in her family. So Sylvia was often left with her maternal grandparents, whom she was very found of. In particular, she was very close to her grandfather, who she called “grampy”. In fact, she often in later writing would speak about him as if he was really her father. The following excerpt comes from her story “Among the Bumblebees” and describes an incident that actually occurred, according to Riri, (Pg. 22) with her grandfather.
“…First father would go for a swim himself, leaving her in the shore. . . .After a while she would call to him, and he would turn and begin swimming shoreward, carving a line of foam. . . .cleaving the water ahead with the powerful propellers of his arms. He would come to her and lift her onto his back , where she clung, her arms looked around his neck, and go swimming out again. In an ecstasy of terror...
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... and her and her husband settled back down in the United States. Both pursued their writing careers and worked off and on until they finally decided to return to London once again.
In February 1960, Sylvia published her first volume of poetry called the “Colossus And Other Poems”. Both poets enjoyed continued success, but were even happier when on April 1, 1960, Sylvia gave birth to her first child, a daughter. A second child, a son, was born to the couple January 17, 1962. It was soon after this second birth that the marriage showed signs of great strain. Sylvia eventually found out that Ted was seeing someone else and she divorced Ted and attempted to continue with a normal life with her two children. She continued to experience success as a writer, and published several more books of poetry. However, her and her children’s illnesses and an extremely bad English winter, along with many lonely nights caused Sylvia to take her life on February 11, 1963.
1. Aurelia Shober Plath. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath. New York City: Harper & Row
2. The Academy of American Poets. “Sylvia Plath”. The Academy of American Poets.
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