July 2003

Melissa Roy

fiction

Wintering by Kate Moses

Sylvia Plath has always been interesting to me, partly because of my ignorance about her. She’s become mythologized to a point where she doesn’t seem contemporary and so it’s hard to have imagined her life in “modern” times, hard to think of her as a modern, more or less independent woman strolling around urban London as a single mother with two children. When someone’s art becomes so important, particularly after their death, the details of their mundane lives seem to fade away into the background and the danger is that, for their readers, they lose all identifiable characteristics, making them seem larger-than-life. Plath, though, as evidenced by her suicide, wasn’t larger than life. In her book Wintering, Kate Moses restores to us the real Sylvia Plath, the woman who struggled with the devastating infidelity of her husband, the difficulty of raising two children alone, the grapple for independence in a world where she had to be more dependent than she would have liked, and the desperate need to repair her past and her relationship with her mother. Plath is alternately emotionally and creatively charged and then drained, blissfully happy and then numb, alive and then (metaphorically and literally) dead.

Moses herself was inspired by Plath’s collection of poems called Ariel, composed and arranged after the crumbling of her marriage to Ted Hughes, who continued to assist and edit her writing long after their relationship ended. Hughes (in an example of the lack of Plath’s independence even after their breakup) edited the poems in Ariel to appear in a very different order than that in which Plath had arranged them, but Moses returns to that original, more emotional and lyrical arrangement to tell Plath’s story. The chapters are named after the poems in Ariel, beginning with “Morning Song” and ending with “Wintering,” and Moses uses the titles as well as the content of the poems themselves as the basis from which she extrapolates her story. She chooses well, based on the titles, the points at which certain things about Plath’s life and her relationships will be revealed and she frequently switches between “present” tense and flashbacks to spoon-feed, little by little, the tragedies that predicated Plath’s loneliness and desperation. Those moments, though (until the end), are always juxtaposed with moments of happiness, hope, and normalcy as well, making them all the more painful, as they must have been to the poet. Sadness is always the hardest when you’ve known blissful happiness but a moment before, and Plath had just as much happiness and she did sadness.

Moses did a great deal of research into Sylvia Plath’s existence in preparation for the book, and all of that is evident in the structure and the detail with which she treats the story of her life and death. However, that research doesn’t cover the depth of Moses’s understanding. She seems to touch the depth of Plath’s soul, the zeniths of her happiness and the nadirs of her depression, in a way that isn’t possible for someone who doesn’t truly understand or empathize with Plath’s circumstances. That kind of research, the kind in which you comprehend your subject as if they were your friend, alive and well, with whom you converse on a daily basis, takes commitment and bravery, exactly the qualities that Moses demonstrated in her writing. Best of all, she doesn’t make a victim out of Plath: she gives us a sympathetic character, a woman similar to so many all of us have known, a woman who deserves respect and awe for the greatness of her artistic ability and who also deserves understanding for the pain from which that greatness was borne, but who does not deserve pity or condescension for the way in which she ended her life. In this way, Moses restores to us Sylvia Plath the woman, the jilted lover, the daughter, the mother, the struggling writer and makes Sylvia Plath the icon pale in comparison. She gives her reader, and Plath for that matter, a wonderful gift: she gives Sylvia Plath life, not the death that made her so famous, and its poignancy is undeniable.

Wintering by Kate Moses
St. Martin’s Press
ISBN 031228375X
283 pages