05 April 2013

Review of How to Analyze the Works of Sylvia Plath

This is another review that I started ages ago and only recently uncovered. Not that it is worth publishing as it is in itself a poorly written review about a poorly written book: a reflection perhaps of the work itself... I have two reviews in the works as well, of Elizabeth Winder's Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (HarperCollins, 2013) and Marianne Egeland's Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

Adbo Publishing Company published How to Analyze the Works of Sylvia Plath by Victoria Peterson-Hilleque recently (978-1617834578). It is a slim volume geared toward students in grades 6-8 and features chapters which discuss Plath's life, The Bell Jar, "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," and "Three Women." Two chapters examine each of Plath's works and are structured with one chapter being an "Overview" and the second applying different critical approaches to the work. It works out like this: The Bell Jar (Biographical criticism); "Daddy" (Psychoanalytical criticism); "Lady Lazarus" (Feminist criticism); and "Three Women" (Structuralism). The "How to Apply" such-and-such criticism to the work are written like an essay might be written, with thesis points and conclusions, etc. Their merit as being well-written or as representative to what a teacher might expect from a student is not for me to judge.

The content of the book is mediocre at best and I think that is being kind. It is victim of a poor understanding of Plath by the author and series editor; as well, there are questionably relevant illustrations and captions, and a fairly poor section in the back matter in particular the bibliography and resources.

The issues, chapter by chapter:

Chapter 2: A Closer Look at Sylvia Plath:
p. 16: The Harvard summer school course to which Plath was rejected was taught by Frank O'Connor not Frank O'Hara.

p. 17: Hughes was not well known when he met Plath in 1956.

p. 19, caption: Plath and Hughes honeymooned in Spain (Alicante and Benidorm), not Paris. They merely traveled through Paris...

p. 20, caption: The photo on this page shows Ariel, Birthday Letters and Crow. The caption reads, "Plath would never see much of her work published. Ariel was published in 1965, two years after her death." That the photo shows two books by Ted Hughes makes no sense.

Chapter 3: An Overview of The Bell Jar
Esther Greenwood did not attend Smith College (page 23, 24, 26, 27, and 29)

Ladies Day, not the Ladies Home Journal, hosted the luncheon.

Chapter 4: How to Apply Biographical Criticism to The Bell Jar
Again, it is unclear who is responsible for the "essays" in these "How to Apply" chapters: one might presume that it is Peterson-Hilleque.

"Argument One", p 32: "Esther's reaction to Buddy's relationship with the waitress reflects Plath's frustrations with Hughes's infidelity." Absolutely not considering the affair which caused the frustration to Plath (the one with Assia Wevill) did not start until a year after The Bell Jar was drafted. Very disappointing. There is more but I will skip around a bit so as to not be so misanthropic...

p. 43: "Plath writes in her journals about Norton seducing a waitress while he was dating Plath, which is something Buddy also did to Esther." Actually, Buddy claims that it was Gladys, the waitress, that seduced him.

Chapter 6: How to Apply Psychoanalytic Criticism to "Daddy"
p. 61: Otto Plath died in 1940, not 1943. By contrast, his death year is correct in the timeline on page 98.

Chapter 7: An Overview of "Lady Lazarus"
p. 66: Photograph of a scan of Hughes' "Last Letter" completely out of context.

Bibliography of Works and Criticism
p. 102: Plath's journals are not listed as "Important Works" and I beg to differ. Actually I do not need to beg; I just differ.

p. 104: Plath's 1982 abridged Journals are cited in the text, but the Karen V. Kukil unabridged edition is listed. Why the differentiation between works appearing in the Bibliography and in the Resources? Simply baffling.

Overall and in general this book How to Analyze Sylvia Plath is a miss and not recommended either for younger students trying to learn about Sylvia Plath or even the more advanced and adult Plath readers. Bad, quasi-boilerplate writing once again makes Plath the victim of an academic publisher attempting to capitalize on her popularity. Not to mention the cover is awful & among the worst Photoshop jobs ever. But I'll stop now...


Anonymous said...

WHAT have they done to the back of her head?!! Sort of trimmed the shadow into a 'hair cut'?? Cath

Peter K Steinberg said...

Good question: just indicative of the content within...


Alice in East Washington said...

Giving it a little trim, so to speak;).

IngridLola said...

I'm curious to hear what you think of Pain, Parties, Work. It felt very superficial to me, though the fresh take was exciting at first. I was especially annoyed with one footnote about how Sylvia wore her hair the months before she died.

Peter K Steinberg said...


Thank you for your comment. I'm still working on my review. We're all bound to see the book differently.


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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.