09 December 2008

Review of The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath by Jo Gill

Since 2000, there have been a number of introductory books on Sylvia Plath. These come in two categories: biographies and critical overviews. The audience in each instance has been junior high (early teens) through high school and possibly early college. I've read each - including my own contribution to this genre - but most are written by a group of people whom I might term "serial" writers. Seemingly non-experts hired to write on Plath, or some other subject or person.

The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge University Press, 2008) by Jo Gill, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Exeter, is one of the most recent of these. In it, Gill discusses Plath's life and works in succinct chapters that are so packed with value it makes even the thickest Plath criticism redundant. You may know Gill's name in association with Plath's from the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath, a wonderful volume which she edited and contributed an essay. The set-up of her Cambridge Introduction is similar, but this time the content all her own.

Gill's preface is clear: "to offer new readers an accessible, authoritative and comprehensive guide to Plath's writing...and to provide an incisive and insightful overview of key tendencies and developments in Plath criticism." (ix) This agenda is met immediately and consistently throughout the text. In each chapter, Gill breaks out major themes that she sees going on in the discussed text. These themes all present readers with questions, answers, and ideas for further study and inquiry. The books conciseness is valuable for new readers to Plath in that it sheds right off many of the layers to Plath scholarship. Although Plath has been dissected and examined, Gill encourages that us to re-examined previously held notions.

The first two chapters, as well as the last one, look at Plath's life and the contexts in which she has been read, interpreted, adopted, and discussed for more than four decades. Scholars are re-evaluating Sylvia Plath and reading her in new ways. Psychoanalysis, feminist, confessional and other readings of Sylvia Plath are a thing of the past. It is quite possible that some of those early ways of reading Plath did more harm than good. Currently, Plath is being read with an intense, dedicated focus to sociological and historical approaches. By connecting Plath's life and writing to events and other happenings at the time in which she lived, a new perspective on her accomplishments is possible. This offers, possibly, the most authentic approach to Sylvia Plath and allows for the continued re-appraisal of her works.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Gill turns her attention to the poetry. Generally her interpretations and connections of the writing and between the writing styles is accurate and authentically her own. While presenting her own analysis, she highlights the best of what's been said before her, as well as respectfully and successfully disagreeing with previous scholarship as well. Gill discusses out the controversy over Plath's Collected Poems, and the questionable chronology assigned the poems. While admitting some advantage to reading the poems chronologically, it "does not fully accomodate teh complexity of the work." (30). Her aim, therefore, is "to look at poems in detail in relation both to the collections in which they were first published, and the wider picture of Plath's ouevre." (30) This she does brilliantly. What I find particularly welcome is the amount of attention given to Plath's early poetry and juvenilia (Chapter 3). This is not surprising, given that Gill wrote on The Colossus and Crossing the Water in the Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath, the book she edited in 2006. The chapter looking at Ariel and the later poems is another fresh look at works well-criticized. In Ariel she highlights Plath's use of echoes, both the word and the sound, as well as her use of repeating words. Throughout the book, Gill refers to Plath's use of doubling or the double and thus shows a wonderful cohesiveness in all of Plath's writing.

Critical attention has shifted away from Plath's fiction for a while, the focus being on her poetry - as though Plath's identity as a poet and association with poetry makes her, in some obscene academic way, a more serious writer. The fictional writing is perhaps closer to Plath biographically, and this might be the reason for its shunning. A number of scholars are beginning to re-examine Plath's fiction, however, and Chapter 5, which looks The Bell Jar and Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, is a wonderful beginning. Gill brings some of the themes discussed in the poetry into full spotlight in the discussion of the fiction, and shows that there is continuity and connectivity between the two genres in Plath's creative works. In the discussion of The Bell Jar, we are given a separate section on Plath's narrative voice, the double, and subjectivity. The worth of the stories assembled in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams is given some major, much needed attention. These highly under-valued works will shortly be given more attention in Luke Ferretter's forthcoming critical study of Plath's fiction.

Gill examines Letters Home and The Journals thoughtfully. Both of these works are somewhat contentious: they were not specifically written for publication. I think Gill's history and reading of Letters Home will go far in reassessing their worth (while at the same time highlighting a need for a larger, more complete edition of Plath's letters). The Journals have received more critical attention, especially since the publication of the Unabridged Journals, edited by Karen V. Kukil, in 2000. Gill's looks at the Letters and the Journals in a wonderful way, "If Letters Home represents an attempt to persuade the mother of the stability of Plath's position and of the validity of the decisions she has made, then the Journals arguably represent an attemp to persuade and reassure the self." (108) Gill links these two works in ways that future researchers will find useful.

The Notes and Further Reading that conclude the book are also useful; particularly the Further Reading as the works selected are followed by brief annotations. The summaries are an invaluable way to indicate to readers what certain articles or books are about in a way that the title of the thing might not necessarily convey.

As I read each chapter, I continually said to myself, "Yes, yes". People shied away from sitting next to me on the train and my wife wanted to call the doctor. There is no reason why young readers, new to Sylvia Plath and impressionable, shouldn't be given the absolute best. I feel that with The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath, readers finally have. Gill's reading of Sylvia Plath is wonderful, intelligent, and informative. Although written with a for those who are new to Sylvia Plath, this is a must read for even the most seasoned scholar. Beginning your own introduction to Sylvia Plath with Jo Gill's book, will leave the neophyte at an advantage. Although the back story to Plath scholarship is always interesting, starting your interest here is more than a little encouraging. It shows that Plath's reception is changing, and that this change is for the better. There is very little to complain about in The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. In fact, my only criticism is that the book was not longer.

My advice: Read this book.

1 comment :

Melanie Smith said...

Thank you for that thorough and thoughtful review Peter. It is wonderful to hear that there is solid and considered work occuring out there in the Plath community.

My copy is sitting on the shelf waiting in line to be read and I am looking forward to it even more now.

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