Dr. Matthew Paldy

Sylvia Plath's Depression: a Psychoanalytic Exploration

By Dr. Matthew Paldy

Annihilation anxieties reflect fears of disintegration of the self and have roots in early traumatic experiences, ego weaknesses, and issues with self-cohesion. They are triggered by threats or perceived threats to survival and generally originate in early stages of development but can persist throughout adult life (Hurvich, 2003). Annihilation anxiety is commonly associated with fears of being overwhelmed, merged, penetrated, and fragmenting to bits (Klein, 1958) and can occur in fantasied, presymbolic, and preverbal forms. Annihilation anxiety has been well studied in the psychoanalytic literature but in recent decades it has been further elaborated upon. In expanding upon Freud’s (1920) writings on the death instinct and the psyche’s ability to cope with inevitability of death, Klein viewed annihilation anxiety as a result of the death instinct but Klein focused more on the fear of death rather than the wish or drive towards death. Both Klein and Freud viewed the terror of annihilation, as well as destructive tendencies in the psyche, as innate biological components, however other theorists such as Williams (1997) and Bion (1962) have conceptualized it as a developmental result of the parents’ caretaking and interaction with the child. Winnicott (1960) viewed annihilation anxiety as a disruption in an infant’s ‘continuity of being’ resulting from maternal impingements that constitute a psychic threat to the infant. Bion (1962) writes that a critical role of the mother’s is her ability to receive and contain her baby’s fear of dying. A mother who is unable to receive her infant’s anxieties and return them back to the infant in a mollified, calmed form is felt by the infant as an attack on the mother-infant bond, and therefore in the infant’s mind poses an annihilatory threat to the infant’s very existence. Hurivch (1989) posited that the fear of being overwhelmed or annihilated constitutes a basic danger and should be included in Freud’s series of infantile danger situations which include fear of loss of the object, loss of love, castration, and superego censure.

Plath’s Struggles With Annihilatory Fears and Wishes

Plath was an extremely ambitious young woman. She had won multiple scholarships and writing contests and had been accepted by Harper's Magazine at age 21, by The Atlantic at 23, and by The New Yorker at 25. She would chastise herself over her failures but would then rally to send off more submissions to other magazines and contests, and “success was her true worship” (Davison, 1982). The extreme nature of Plath’s ambition could indicate that she had a harsh superego. It is possible that Plath’s annihilatory anxieties were in part a result of what Klein (1958) conceptualized as a psychotic and cruel superego that appears as a “terrifying internal object that can neither be assimilated nor transformed.” Plath’s personal journals show evidence of a harsh superego in the way she treated those close to her: “Plath's friends, even those closest to her, hardly ever receive a kind word in the journals, except when being useful or admiring” (Davison, 1982). Klein viewed a cruel superego as directly related to “destructive impulses and internal persecutors” (Klein, 1958).

Migliozzi’s (2016) writes that destructive and anti-relational psychic structures expand by “seducing the healthy parts of the mind and colonizing them.” Plath’s increasing desperation under the demands of parenthood, shown in her journal entries, may be evidence that in Migliozzi’s conceptualization, Plath was becoming progressively isolated from “from nurturing and growth derived from contact with external objects” (p. 1023) and this could fuel her annihilatory anxieties. Although Migliozzi focuses on “evil” and most would not consider Plath to be evil, her journals show that she tended as Migliozzi writes, to destroy joy and meaningfulness in her life.

Plath made her first documented suicide attempt in August, 1953 when she was 20 years old. She ingested sleeping pills from her mother's cabinet and then went into a crawl space in the basement of her house. This failed suicide attempt and her death suicide reflect a lifelong drive toward annihilation and death that corresponds to Joseph’s (1982) view that some people “feel in thrall to a part of the self that dominates and imprisons them.” Plath’s writings show a pervasive obsession with death as evidenced by themes in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963). Annihilation was not only a fear to Plath, but also a delight, as shown in the revelry of doom and death evidenced in her poems. Her married life and raising children was dull and imprisoning to her, especially in comparison to the attraction and excitement of annihilation. Joseph (1982) writes extensively about her patients with annihilatory addictions that form a powerful masochistic force within them. As with one of Joseph’s patients, “no ordinary pleasure, genital, sexual, or other, offered such delight as this type of terrible and exciting self-annihilation.” In accordance with Joseph’s view, Plath’s increasingly destructive masochistic spirals can be viewed a pull towards death. However, unlike Joseph’s patients, where circular mental activities often became antithesis of thought, Plath was able to harness these forces in conjunction with her formidable intellect into stellar written examples of human thought. Although Joseph’s characterizes annihilatory addictions as involving repetitive, circular mental activity with little variation (“chuntering”), Plath uses her intellectual abilities to transform her masochistic excitement into a range of vivid annihilistic fantasies and self-exciting visions of pain and despair. This is reflected in a multitude of her poems and is evident in “Fever 103”:

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin,
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright

Evidence of a harsh superego appears in her words, “the sin, the sin” as well as annihilatory overtones in “the tinder cries,” evoking visions of burning and ashes. Death, and perhaps its putridness, is evident as well in “The indelible smell…of a snuffed candle.” Plath’s obsession with annihilation is also evident in her phrase “From me like Isadora’s scarves,” an identificatory reference to the dancer Isadora Duncan, who was killed when her long scarf caught in the wheel of her car while driving.

Plath’s satisfaction from her own annihilatory fantasies is often accompanied in her poems by sexual metaphors, which relates to Freud’s (1924) assertion that “even the subject’s destruction of himself cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction.” Freud’s insight here is remarkable when one looks at two stanzas from Plath’s “Fever 103.” The first stanza expresses, among other things, expresses a vision of death while the subsequent stanza expresses libidinal satisfaction:

Devilish leopard!
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush

Plath’s violent imagery may indicate that during infancy she suffered from, according to Winnicott’s theories, maternal impingements that caused a disruption in her “continuity of being.” This disruption could have resulted in Plath’s failure to contain her own threatening and terrifying psychic states, because as Winnicott (1961) writes, “The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates”(p. 591).

Williams (1997) proposed that a disruption in the container/contained relationship described by Bion (1962) could not only lead to the child to feel that his/her projections into the parent were rejected, but also that the child could internalize the parent’s disruptive projections into what Williams termed an “omega” function, which serves as a disorganizing, frightening object in the child’s internal world. While I do not know the details of the way Plath’s mother interacted with her as an infant, if Plath’s mother were to exhibit the failure Williams describes, it would explain some of Plath’s struggles with her annihilatory inner objects if Plath served as a receptacle for her mother’s projected anxiety and psychic pain. Plath’s hatred for her mother is evidenced by such journal entries as:

"I hate her hate her hate her ... I hate her because he [her father] wasn't loved by her. He was an ogre. But I miss him. He was old, but she married an old man to be my father. It was her fault. Damn her eyes." - Plath’s Journal, 1960.

Therefore Plath’s hatred for her mother may well been a manifestation of conscious and unconscious resentment of having to serve as a receptacle for her mother’s anxious projections. Anxiety was prominent in Plath’s psyche as evidenced by her journal entries: “My skin is broken out from subconscious anxiety and tension, self-induced.” (Plath, 1960, Journal).

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but Williams (1997) describes her patient, Daniel as having, similarly to Plath’s writings, a strong pull toward suicidal ideation and “feeling of fragmentation and utter despair” (p. 930). It is unfortunate that Plath did not have a psychoanalyst like Williams, who served as a container for Daniel’s anxieties, and in William’s phrase that was particularly helpful to me, was “willing to work through the experience again and again in the transference relationship, helping the patient to modify his perception, so that a change in the internal object can gradually take place.”

Plath’s poetry was exceptional in its vivid, gothic imagery and descriptions of death. One writer noted that “the very source of Plath’s creative energy was, it turned out, her self-destructiveness” (Howard, 1963). Her poem Ariel shows her fantasy of annihilatory delight:

And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.

In this stanza Plath is explicit about her ecstatic drive towards deathly transformation, using images of a cauldron which itself can be considered a sort of transformative object, used to “transform” raw food into something edible. Perhaps Plath was aware of the mythical uses of cauldrons, which involved using them as a place where dead warriors could be placed and then would be returned to life. Plath also uses a deliberate play on words, with “morning” possibly meaning “mourning,” which would directly relate to the concept of death that pervaded her psyche.

In conclusion, it seems a tragedy that Plath did not enter psychoanalysis, or perhaps didn’t even know about it, even though it was established when Plath was maturing in the 1950s. Without the aid of psychoanalysis, Plath was unable to manage the deep anxieties and annihilatory tendencies that drove and directed her short life. Writing about her has helped me relate concepts discussed in class and the readings, and it will also helps me gain perspective into my own psyche by thinking through the psychoanalytic concepts and perspectives. I find it fascinating how the various theories and writings become interconnected and can inform each other.

Appendix: Additional Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Plath

As a relative beginner in the psychoanalytic field it is very useful for me to apply concepts from our readings to real-world people. Plath’s early development may have been characterized by various deficiencies in her relationships with her parents. Ferenczi pointed out that a mother’s failure to understand meanings in the child’s psychological world could lead to risks. Perhaps Plath’s mother exhibited a lack of maternal sensitivity that led to a form of insecure attachment, as described by Bowlby. Winnicott may have also viewed Plath’s mother as having a defective mirroring or containing function, and Plath’s mother may have been unable to withstand the infant’s attempts to (psychically) destroy her, and therefore may not have become real and separate in the infant’s mind, an essential part of the Winnicottian developmental process. This would help explain Plath’s love/hate relationship with her mother and constant need for contact with her. The extraordinary imagery of Plath’s poems may reflect an interruption in the function of psychic equivalence, where “for the young child mental events are equivalent in terms of power, causality, and implications to events in the physical world” (Wallin, 2007). Her mother may not have been able to sufficiently “reflect with understanding on their child’s inner experiences and respond accordingly.” This could have deprived Plath of a core psychological structures and therefore inhibit the emergence of a stable and strong ego (Wallin, 2007).

Even though Plath stayed in close contact with her mother throughout her life she may not have had the ego strength to be psychically separate, as evidenced by the prominent focus on her mother in her journal entries and daily letters she wrote to her mother. Plath’s rage towards her mother may reflect her inability to relinquish her psychic dependency on her mother. From a Kleinian/Bionian viewpoint Plath’s troubles may have arisen from her mother not being able to sufficiently absorb and retransmit back to her metabolized forms of the infant’s distressing experiences. Plath eloquently described her states of happiness and misery in what today might be termed her bipolar disorder, writing “two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods of it.” This might reflect her struggle with separateness and dependency from her mother and possibly reflect aspects of Klein’s views on love and hate as elements of the paranoid-schizoid position. Although her obsession with her own death was prominent, it may be that she had a fear of life itself, where life meant psychically separating from her mother.


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