A Parallel Between Elena and Sylvia Plath

by Bárbara Lopes – Blogueiras Feministas 5/1/2013

Sylvia, Elena and Art on the Edge

And I a smiling woman,
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die
(Extract from the poem ‘Lady Lazurus’ by Sylvia Plath)

There is a belief that the substance of art can be of such intense power that those who come in touch with it cannot leave unharmed. The stories of Sylvia Plath and Elena Andrade bear witness to this. Both were deep into their arts (writing and acting), were fascinating and depressive, both committed suicide. The story of American writer Sylvia Plath, who killed herself in 1963 at age 30, has been countlessly retold. It is the stories of Sylvia’s story that make up The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm. The film ELENA, in its turn, is the result of the investigations of Director Petra Costa into the life of her sister, Brazilian actress Elena, who died in 1990 when only 20.

Sylvia Plath is considered a feminist icon, due especially to her later Ariel  poems. In these she comes through in a voice raw and cruel, refusing to fall into the “good girl” role. However, her own life also nurtures this picture. Born in the USA, she moved to England in 1955, where she married the poet Ted Hughes. Their marriage lasted six years and the couple separated in 1962, when Sylvia found out her husband was having an affair. The following year, she left milk and cookies in her children’s room, shut the kitchen door, and turned on the gas.

In the various accounts of this story, the roles of hero and villain alternate. Sylvia appears in some as the victim of a womanizer and an unhappy marriage. In others, it is she who makes Hughes’ life hell, with her constant mood swings and selfishness. The Silent Woman moves between these narratives, tells stories of the biographers, and shows the pains and pleasures arising with each detailed revelation of the couple’s private life.

Petra Costa’s film follows a path at once similar and opposite. Elena moved from Brazil to the USA with the dream of becoming a film actress. There, however, she was overtaken by melancholy. The director delved into her sister’s letters, diaries and tapes, retraced her steps and listened to the stories of those close to her. Her intent, however, was not to produce a factual biography about her sister, but to reflect on her own self and the extent to which Elena lived on within her. The outcome is not a linear narrative but the sum of lyrical and personal fragments.

It is highly tempting, in the face of such tragic stories, to try to frame them within the context of the wider social tragedy and find the culpable within the social structures. There is no lack of elements for such. Both women, though living in different times, came up against the conflicts and barriers facing them as women and artists, the standards of behavior and appearances expected of them. One of Sylvia Plath’s biographers, Anne Stevenson, tells of her own battle in not giving up being a writer.  Foremost in what she had to confront were the pressures of  “what used to be called ‘womanliness’—sex, marriage, children and the socially acceptable position of wife.”

At the same time, both stories challenge us as dramas that do not stem from any concrete lack or hardship. It seems exaggerated and unfair to blame Ted Hughes for Sylvia Plath’s death, and equally absurd to put the blame on the writer herself. In Elena’s case, the dedication shown by her mother in the film is striking. A mother who left off the militant fight against the dictatorship because she was pregnant, who later left the country to accompany her daughter in the pursuit of her dreams, a mother who perceived Elena’s depression and did what she could to save her. If we cannot blame specific individuals, should we blame society? The discussion is open ended.

Finally, what we’re left with is art—the romantic, mystical view of the true artist always walking a tightrope, getting all too close to fire, at the edge of the abyss. This can in some ways be comforting, a kind of exchange, a Faustian pact: unhappiness for the chance of reaching the absolute, transcending. But this is a trap. As Anne Stevenson puts it:

“My argument with Sylvia is essentially a moral, philosophical one:  to me, no art, no ‘great poem’ is worth that much human suffering.  After all, there is suffering enough in the world without creating it for the purpose of an interior psychodrama (…)  But belief in ‘Art’ of this kind, in the so-called ‘risk’ of Art and the existential dilemma of the artist (give me genius or give me death) is, for me, akin to the beliefs of fundamental religious fanatics.”

It is worth getting to know these women – not only Elena and Sylvia, but also those who tell their stories. Not because they can in some way explain the world we live in but because their personal universes are precious of themselves.  They are live with guts and beauty.

• The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughw. Janet Malcolm.

• ELENA (82 minutes). Director: Petra Costa. Producer: Busca Vida Filmes.

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