Sylvia Plath: a psychobiographical study
Panelatti, Angela Francesca
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Increased interest in psychobiographical research has resulted in national and international researchers advocating its value. Although South Africa has seen an increase in the number of psychobiographies based on individuals who have made important contributions, both nationally and internationally, the majority of these psychobiographies have focused on male research subjects. In light of South Africa’s efforts to promote female empowerment in a post- apartheid era, South African psychologists may be motivated to embark on the study of significant and exceptional women who shaped history, whether in South Africa or abroad. Sylvia Plath has been hailed as one of the most influential and renowned figures of the 20th century. Although she only published one poetry collection (The Colossus) and one novel (The Bell Jar) in her lifetime, the many poems, short stories, letters and journal entries which were published after her death, have secured her status as a powerful voice in Anglo-American culture and literature. None of the works which currently exist on Sylvia Plath provide an in-depth psychological perspective on her life. The researcher thus decided to select her as the subject for this psychobiography through purposive sampling, with the aim of providing a psychological exploration and description of aspects of her life, against the backdrop of her socio-historical context. This aim was accomplished by applying two psychological frameworks to the biographical and historical data collected on Sylvia Plath. The psychological frameworks included: (a) Erikson’s stage-based, psychosocial theory of development, and (b) Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. The study’s primary aim was thus to explore and describe Sylvia Plath’s psychosocial development and the structure of her internal family system throughout her life. Due to the exploratory-descriptive nature of this study, the objective can be said to fall within the inductive research approach. The use of specific methodological strategies proved to be particularly valuable in the extraction and analysis of data in this study. The researcher made use of Alexander’s nine indicators of psychological saliency and Schultz’s model of prototypical scenes, to facilitate the organisation and prioritisation of biographical data. In order to manage the proliferation of data available on Sylvia Plath, the researcher posed specific questions to the data, which allowed for the extraction of units of analysis relevant to the research objectives of the study. The researcher made use of two conceptual matrices to facilitate the analysis of data in this psychobiographical study, as proposed by Fouché. This ensured the systematic categorisation and consistent analysis of biographical data collected on Sylvia Plath, according to the stages of her psychosocial development and the constructs of her internal family system, and in terms of the socio-historical contexts which impacted on her life. Findings from the study suggest that Plath did not progress through the different stages of psychosocial development successfully and consequently failed to acquire the ego virtues of hope, willpower, purpose, competence, fidelity and love as proposed by Erikson. In terms of Schwartz’s model, findings suggest that each stage of her life was characterised by parts-led functioning as a result of transferred burdens, imperfect care-taking, existential anxiety and traumatic emotional experiences. This resulted in polarization of her different parts, which blocked the healing energy of her Self and aggravated feelings of worthlessness, shame and guilt. The integrative, holistic approach of the study’s psychological frameworks allowed for an extensive exploration and description of different constructs and dimensions, and ensured that Plath’s life was explored against the backdrop of her socio-historical context, since both psychological frameworks highlight the impact of one’s political, cultural and historical environment on one’s development and intrapsychic processes. Apart from contributing to the body of knowledge on Sylvia Plath and to the frameworks of psychosocial development and internal family systems, this study also added to educational objectives in the field of psychobiography. This psychobiography affirmed that an examination of the lives of extraordinary women who used their creative genius to address socio-historical issues, could be a significant endeavour for future psychobiographical researchers. Based on the psychological frameworks applied in this study, recommendations are made for future research.