Sylvia Plath’s Suicide Note: Death Knell, or Cry for Help?
By Nava Atlas | On October 5, 2017 | Updated August 23, 2022 | Comments (22)
It may be surprising that the iconic poet Sylvia Plath, who wrote extensively and evocatively of death and suicide in her poetry, left a note of only four words before taking her own life. A debate has stirred ever since — was Sylvia Plath’s suicide note a death knell, or a cry for help?
Sylvia Plath’s note simply said “Please call Dr. Horder” — along with this doctor’s phone number. Could a slip of paper bearing these four words even be considered a suicide note at all? For whose eyes was it intended?
When Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February of 1963, it wasn’t the first time she had tried to take her own life.
Ten years earlier, she overdosed on pills in the cellar of her mother’s house. And the summer before she died, she drove her car into a river. Her suicide left many questions unanswered.
A gloomy winter spent in isolation
The weather that winter was frightful and isolating. Sylvia was in the grip of a long depressive cycle, yet poetry had been flowing from her pen. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, was published in England in January, 1963, though under a pseudonym.
In early 1963, Sylvia was living in a flat in London with the two young children she had with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes. The couple was separated. Hughes had been having an affair with Assia Wevill since the summer before.
The months between her discovery of Hughes’ affair and her death were remarkably productive. Much of the poetry she produced during this period would be published posthumously.
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The Tragic Relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
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Clearly, this period of time found Sylvia struggling, with her ability to cope with daily life deteriorating. Compounding her isolation was that she and her children had been sick with flu.
That same month, Sylvia consulted with Dr. John Horder, a nearby General Practitioner, about her mental state.
Dr. Horder prescribed the antidepressant Parnate, an MAOI, to Sylvia. She began taking it and saw him every day. According to Diane Middleton, author of the insightful book Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath — a marriage, the couple had started to discuss a reconciliation, but the prospect only seemed exacerbate Sylvia’s mood swings.
A nurse was scheduled to arrive that morning of February 11, to check on her and help with the children. No one answered the door, so with the help of a workman, they got into the apartment, where they found Sylvia dead, with her head in the oven.
It was estimated that she had put her head in the oven and turned on the gas at 4:30 a.m.
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Why did Sylvia Plath kill herself?
It still remains a matter of debate why Sylvia acted upon her suicidal urges when she did. According to Middleton:
“But why did Plath actually do it? Everything knowable has been ransacked for evidence, over many years now, to support an answer simple and concrete. Some people blamed Hughes’s infidelity.
Others infer from the timing of her actions that Plath expected to be rescued, and miscalculated the danger … Dr. Horder believed that her death was intentional, but irrational: that she was in the grips of a compulsion attributable to brain chemistry, the biological condition that her psychoactive medication was addressing with gradual efficacy.
Unfortunately, the medication had so far only given her the strength to act on her hopelessness … Hughes believed that it induced the suicidal thoughts it was supposed to alleviate — the that medication prompted the suicide, in effect.
The whole catastrophe had been brought on by ‘that accursed book’ The Bell Jar, he said, ‘that required the tranquilizers’ her doctor had prescribed, and that led directly to her death.’”
Some who have written of the suicide believe that Sylvia was crying for help, rather than intending to actually die. Others have viewed it as a deliberate act.
Sylvia had prepared bread and milk for the children and placed it near their beds. She opened their windows and sealed off the room with masking tape so the gas wouldn’t reach them.
Her actions of preparation were deliberate and rational. Then she used a piece of torn shelf paper to write her note, which simply said “Call Dr. Horder” with his telephone number, and taped it to the children’s stroller (or pram, in the British term).
The question has remained, was that note to alert Dr. Horder of her own imminent danger — did she want to be rescued? — or was it to ensure the children’s safety? Either way, it’s evident that she wanted that note to be found.
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Plath chronicles her struggles with mental illness in
the autobiographical novel,The Bell Jar
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Was it a cry for help?
The following excerpt from Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes by Marc Etkind (1997), also continues to ponder whether this suicide note was attempt was a cry for help, or a death knell for a talented and troubled young woman:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
(from Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Lady Lazarus”)
Plath wrote constantly about death and suicide. Sylvia Plath is synonymous with the term suicidal artist. She was a child prodigy, writing her first poem at age eight. But at age nineteen, the overachiever crashed hard with a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt.
As she chronicled in her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, she left a note that she was going for a walk and instead went to a hiding place in her basement. There, she swallowed fifty sleeping pills. It was practically a miracle that she was found still alive.
Plath regained her strength through poetry. But her poetry found its strength in her own private horrors of suicide, death, and depression. Thus, Plath was caught in a Catch-22. She needed her poetry for per sanity, but she needed her insanity for her poetry.
The inevitable act of suicide
On February 11, 1963, she began what many say was an inevitable act. She started by protecting her children. She opened the window in the room and sealed the door with tape and towels.
With her kids safe, she sealed herself in the kitchen, prepared in a resting place near the oven, turned on the gas. She wrote this poem only a few days before she died:
The Woman is perfected.
Body where is the smile of accomplishment,
The inclusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga.
Feet seem to be saying
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flowers.
Insight by A. Alvarez, Sylvia Plath’s friend
Writing in The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, A. Alvarez, a critic and friend of Plath asks, why did she kill herself? He answers:
“In part, I suppose, it was ‘a cry for help’ which fatally misfired. But it was also a last desperate attempt to exorcise the death she had summoned up in her poems … the more she wrote about death, this stronger and more fertile her imaginative world became.
And this gave her everything to live for. I suspect that in the end she wanted to have done with the theme once and for all.
… but the only way she could find was ‘to act out the awful little allegory once over.’ Had always been a bit of a gambler, used to taking risks … finally Sylvia took that risk.
She gambled for the last time, having worked out that the odds were in her favor, but perhaps in her depression, not much caring whether she won or lost. Her calculations went wrong and she lost.”
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I love Sylvia Plath’s poetry. She was amazing, but sadly she suffered from a major mental illness that contributed to her death. I grew up with a mother who suffered from bipolar disorder, who was also treated with shock treatment (ECT). She was also very creative, but there were also many horror shows in the household. It was so difficult living and growing up in that environment. I could remember at ten years old dreaming about escaping the chaos. I had siblings that ran away. I guess what I’m saying is please don’t point fingers at Ted Hughes. I have a feeling that it was a very difficult environment for him to live in and for his own sanity he probably had to leave. They didn’t have the medications they have today that may have helped and even that’s questionable. Sylvia was suicidal long before she met Ted.
Read Ariel which tipped me passing my English Lterature 0 level at 17.
Love Sylvia Plath life was not easy for her as she was predispose to depression and anxiety maybe this was genetic, postnatal depression or having a controlling husband who seemed not supportive, a culmination of environmental psychological and emotional factors. We will never know.
Many people take their own lives especially at the peak of their career for example Ian Curtis Many Take their own lives today even with the advancement of medicines, counselling and help from organisations such as the Samaritans, Mind, etc.
Her attempt on suicide at 19 may well have resulted from sexual identity confusion or internalized homophobia. Low self esteem results in self distructive behaviors. Living in our homophobic society without a solid sense of our worth sure can result in “checking out”.
Being a mother when emotionally fragile (you can be brave but fragile) is extremely difficult. Being a single mother might have been the straw… Emotionally fragile people are very self-centered, self-absorbed. To be a mother requires the opposite, while not losing yourself. If Plath needed to write in order to survive, certainly caring for two children after being deserted by her husband did not allow her the time and energy to survive.
I agree. IT IS HARD ENOUGH LOOKING AFTER YOUNG CHILDREN AS WELL AS CARE FOR YOURSELF & WRITE AND ALL WHEN YOUR HUSBAND ( NOW A POET LAUREATE) HAS LEFT YOU FOR A FAMILY FRIEND.WELL DONE,TED!
Well done Ted!
Your wife was a highly gifted poet & writer struggling alone with two young children after you had betrayed her with a family friend and in one of the coldest winters known in UK. Women are particularly vulnerable after childbirth often suffering post-natal depression compounded in your wife’s case by a long history of depression. I believe it was a cry for help, and of huge – ANGER that went terribly wrong.May she rest in peace knowing she is eacon to all women who write & are brave enough to speak out.
Drivel – the comments too. Plath was intelligent enough to see, with clarity, the bleakness of life, exacerbated by her treacherous husband. She did not have a fragile psyche – she was actually brave. She decided to leave (life) on her own terms.
The collective pearl clutching that surrounds Plath’s deaths only serves to illustrate how intellectually fragile society is.
Intelligence has zero to do with mental health!
Yes it’s all to do with Emotional intelligence
It is all to do with -emotional intelligence, very different from intellectual (often cold ) intelligence
I know my comment will probably be no more than just an assumption, or a shout into the void, but I strongly grief Plath—on behalf of having her writings kept close to my heart, and feeling like she’s lived in a mind very similar to mine. I feel that the ill treatment of her husband and the way she was dealt with such a bad hand must’ve been everything that led to her destruction. Having a loving, understanding partner could alleviate so much of the wretchedness that depression does to someone’s mind, and Hughes was anything but such. Further proof of his ill treatment is the suicide of his son afterward, and his mistress AND the daughter she brought through him. It all centers around a man who built two falling, miserable families.
Please make sure you never end up being such a person to anyone. And if you find yourself unsuitable, do not get married. Do not get into relationships where you cannot treat someone righteously. And if you know someone else suffering, please make sure they have a loving support system around them. Some kindness, checking up, and a loving hand could go a long way to save someone’s life.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Hughes’ actions surely must have impacted a fragile psyche such as Plath’s. There’s more here, in The Tragic Relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-musings/relationship-sylvia-plath-ted-hughes/
Agreed Marwa. One who dangles on the edge of fantasizing death, could have definitely been pushed over by a man such as he. There are many people in unhealthy relationships where they feel like they cannot escape, or choose because of their own patterns. Your most intimate relationships can dictate your daily mood, self-reflection, and value. It’s important to have a supportive system of people around you, but to also be someone in that group who can notice the signs and guide them to professional help. Thankfully nowadays there are many options. Society just needs to normalize the process.
thank you so much for your comment… it is today Sylivia’s 90 birthday and I feel so close to her and her tragedy.. and you are so right with your comment – love, marriage and children – then being left with two very young children of your love – can destroy your hope and life – .. may be a lot of women have survived by chance, confronted with a treacherous husband… as Sysvial did, before.. Feel so sorry for her and her children.. what a cruel fate….
She suffered from bipolar disorder. Someone with that condition can be living in perfect circumstances, but sometimes when the the brain chemistry switches to the depressed phase, the brain feels too sick to tolerate the illness anymore. Perception is drastically skewed to the negative. She did what any smart mother would do. She left a note to make sure someone would immediately call the most responsible, skilled person to protect the children. It is a shame that she was put on the wrong medication for bipolar disorder. Lithium could have helped her.
Thank you for your comment, Irene. As little as we know about mental illness now, so much less was known even a few decades ago. Exacerbated by her winter isolation with her two young children, and Ted Hughes’ obsession with Assia, it was a perfect storm of bad circumstances for an already vulnerable person.
Drivel. Sylvia was fragile in mind and spirit, if she was so strong then she would have been strong enough to survive for her children. Sylvia’s only show of strength is by committing suicide.
I’d like to comment that it was sad that no Dr. took note having children can exacerbate any depression a woman goes through and no woman should ever committed suicide because of any man, especially a cheating one.
I was more surprised to find Ted Hughes committed suicide as well.
Ted Hughes died from cancer. And read up on mental health problems, especially bipolar, SAD and then speak please.
Read up medical literature on mental health problems, bipolar, SAD, post-partum depression. Please be informed. Ted Hughes died from cancer.
Strongness or fragility or courage has nothing to do with it. The human psyche does not react well to the prospect of death. Many people who contemplate suicide will fight for their lives when attacked by a bear. It takes courage (doing something in spite of fear) to commit suicide. Condemnig people for suicide wont prevent it. If you look at the poem above it looks like she might have considered killing her children because she feared they would emotionally suffer like her. They are white (innocent/guiltless serpents. The serpent in the bible lead man to sin. Her sin: suicide and maybe killing her children (folding them like petals into her, the rose.) Is that protection by murder in her mind? Clearly she felt incapable of providing a safe and happy space for them. Whatever one thinks of this, judgement will more likely encourage a person to repeat a suicide attempt. Luckily she decided not to kill her children. Let me repeat: judging people for suicide will not prevent it. Neither will punishment. What might be an appropriate punisment? Corporal punishment? Lethal injection? My feeling is that conditiond in industrial society causes a lot of mental problems.
Yes it’s all to do with Emotional intelligence
I suffered a major depression & was given it (angst.my will) I had dreadful side-effects and symptoms of extreme lethargy so that I could not read fiction, think clearly and lost all motivation.Had Sylvia Plath been prescribed it she would never have write her last stupendous poems, but sunk into oblivion.Current mental health services have not improved since 1960’s and still full of arrogant consultants with little empathy but big salaries and control issues. I speak from recent experience ( 2019-21 UK )
Come on now , they knew very little of depression, especially bi polar , the meds sucked back then and it takes months if not years to get the correct cocktail of meds
Plath was not gambling, she was pushed into a box she had feared her whole adult life: being saddled with the role of a housewife with no room for her work. She wrote about that fear extensively in her Journals and was no practitioner of half-measures once she decided to undertake anything. Losing Ted and being a single mother was effectively the end of one life and she did not have the energy to begin another. People often try to color their own views into her suicide but her own words speak plainly about it. She was troubled in a way many great artists are, and her mistake was trying to “have it all”…something women have not learned to avoid even today. It isn’t a failing, however, and Plath was a strong woman, a strong human really, just one who got trapped in expectations that didn’t account for who she truly was. That’s why she still resonates today, for readers of both sexes.
Thank you so much for your insightful comment. All you say is true — especially in the 1950s, when there was so much pressure on women to conform and be good wives and mothers no matter what other talents they possessed. Add to that, not insignificantly, that she was likely bipolar, and it created the perfect storm.