Her Novels Make Mine Possible
The Influence of Virginia Woolf on Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath. Cape Cod Journal: typescript, 17 July 1957.

Responding to The Waves in her journal, Plath was initially “disturbed” and “almost angered” with Woolf’s “endless sun, waves, birds, and the strange unevenness of description,” complaining that she placed “a heavy, ungainly, ugly sentence next to a fluent, pure, running one.” At the end of the novel, however, Plath became overwhelmed with “the hair-raising fineness of the last 50 pages”:

Bernard’s summary, an essay on life, on the problem: the deadness of being to whom nothing can happen, who no longer creates, creates, against the casting down. That moment of illumination, fusion, creation: We made this: against the whole falling apart, away, and the coming again to make and make in the face of flux: making of the moment something of permanence. That is the life-work.

In this passage from The Waves, Bernard’s desire for the “illumination of other people’s eyes” mirrors a statement that Plath wrote in her journal a year later: “Reading, studying, ‘making your own mind’ all by oneself is just not my best way. I need the reality of other people, work, to fulfill myself.” In the poetic language of The Waves, Woolf’s six main characters contemplate their role in each stage of life. Image: book spread
Virginia Woolf. The Waves. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. Uniform edition, eighth impression.

In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath’s persona systematically self-destructs each decade. Plath’s first draft of the poem, composed in October of 1962, reveals a heightened sense of audience, complete with an excised mob and executioner.

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Sylvia Plath. “Lady Lazarus”: holograph, 1962.

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Sylvia Plath. Cape Cod Journal: typescript, 20 July 1957.
After returning to the United States from Cambridge, England, in 1957, Plath read three novels by Virginia Woolf in one week. While she did not note the first novel, Plath recorded in her journal on 17 July 1957 having “underlined & underlined” her copy of The Waves. Soon after, Plath wrote to her mother that she was “turning to Virginia Woolf’s next novel,” and wrote in her journal on 18 July that “the Woolf sting in Jacob’s Room [was] put off.” Two days later, Plath wrote in her journal, “Virginia Woolf helps. Her novels make mine possible: I find myself describing: episodes: you don’t have to follow your Judith Greenwood to breakfast, lunch, dinner, or tell about her train rides, unless the flash forwards her, reveals her. Make her enigmatic.”

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Sylvia Plath Collection
Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

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