American Dreamers: Marilyn and Sylvia Plath

“Sylvia Plath was the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature,” Carl Rollyson wrote in American Isis, his biography of the poet. (Rollyson’s other works include Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress.) “The more I thought about it I came to believe that Monroe and Plath might be two transitional figures,” he explained in a 2013 interview for the Kirk Centre. “Something was happening to the culture at that time in which these two sides, Hollywood and the fine arts, started to penetrate each other in interesting ways. Then I pick up Plath’s journal—as I describe in the book—and in it she describes a dream about Monroe as a fairy godmother! The boundaries are becoming more permeable, and though some readers still can’t see it, I really see a kind of cultural parallel between them.”

In a recent article for literary magazine The Opiate, Genna Rivieccio picked up the thread, considering Marilyn’s life and career in relation to Plath’s, with reference to her poem ‘Daddy, ‘ and The Bell Jar, a highly autobiographical novel. (Both were published shortly before Plath’s suicide, in a tragic fate that echoed Marilyn’s.)

“It’s no coincidence that Plath killed herself barely a year after Monroe, and at only six years younger. For both women came of age in a particularly oppressive moment in American history. While each had the ‘freeing’ benefit of being ‘coastal’ women, Marilyn on the West and Sylvia on the East, it didn’t mean they weren’t still subject to the intense and pervasive form of patriarchy at large during their youth, most markedly during the McCarthy era. And yes, the 1950s served as the decade during which both women would achieve their career peaks.

Granted, some would say one of Plath’s apexes was 1962’s ‘Daddy,’ written a year before her suicide. And there are those who would argue endlessly in favor of 1961’s The Misfits as being among Monroe’s finest work (in spite of how hard-won completing production was) … As for Marilyn’s own well-known ‘Daddy issues,’ they were cut from a different cloth than Plath’s … Nonetheless, [Plath] was still haunted by him well into adulthood as she came up with the immortal lines to crystallise how she had escaped one oppressor and run right into the arms of another … Marilyn appeared to suffer the same fate with her own coterie of lovers and husbands … And so, as usual, the attractive but ‘too complex’ woman ends up alone.

This aspect of Monroe, her vulnerability, her perpetual loneliness, is what Plath writes about and characterizes so well in her work, whether poetry or prose. And obviously, The Bell Jar is chock-full of paragraphs and aphorisms that feel as though they could have been ripped from Monroe’s diary … So it would be the case for Marilyn (and really, any woman, constantly told she can either have a career or a family… even to this day). For she was a dichotomy in every way … The presumption someone is existing in a supposed ‘ideal state’ is often what makes it even less so to a person, who then feels guilt (in addition to their joylessness) for not experiencing ‘happiness.’ As Esther puts it [in The Bell Jar], ‘I was supposed to be having the time of my life.’ So, too, was Marilyn. Because she was the ‘biggest star in the world.’ The ‘little people’ not understanding the curse that came with such a blessing.

As the details of Marilyn’s tragic and isolating existence came to light while she was alive and even more so after her death, the manner in which Monroe (just like Plath) seems to embody some emblem of tragedy porn has only cemented itself over the decades … Indeed, she wasn’t much of anything after enough years in the spotlight, not when numbed-out on her alcohol and barbiturate diet (Judy Garland knew the plight). Maybe this was a point in her existence when, like Esther, she might have even romanticised death … And in that spirit, maybe the greatest distinction between Plath and Monroe is that the latter’s death has the dubiousness surrounding it to be deemed accidental.”