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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  2,138 ratings  ·  180 reviews
From the moment it was first published in The New Yorker, this brilliant work of literary criticism aroused great attention. Janet Malcolm brings her shrewd intelligence to bear on the legend of Sylvia Plath and the wildly productive industry of Plath biographies. Features a new Afterword by Malcolm.
Paperback, 228 pages
Published March 28th 1995 by Vintage (first published 1993)
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 ·  2,138 ratings  ·  180 reviews

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Paul Bryant
Sep 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
It's true, every time I think about this book I tremble in awe and reverence. It's like major parts of the whole thing about how human beings are human are here in its little pages. All that who are you really and anyway who is the I asking this question and what do these marks signify on these pages which apparently relate to people who used to be here but now aren't and why that should matter anyway, don't we have other more pressing concerns like, er, people who are actually alive?

But I gues
May 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: basically everyone
I found Janet Malcolm's non-biography/biography on the Plath/Hughes estate battles so gripping that I finished it in two sittings. Admittedly, this was not the book I was expecting (thought what I was expecting I'm not entirely sure of), but it read very intimately, very quickly, and very bitingly. Though Malcolm admits on several occasions that she leans on the Hughes "side" of the drama--and she would, seeing as she's cleverly evading the trappings of conventional biographical strictures with ...more
Caitlin Constantine
Oct 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
It's a shame that the first time I'd ever heard of Janet Malcolm was for the libel case she was involved in back in the 1980s. The lawsuit is a staple of media law curricula around the country, and as a result, almost every journalism student has heard of Malcolm, but for all the wrong reasons. (I'm not trying to defend her against accusations of libel, because I don't know enough about the case and what really happened to say one way or the other.) She is a writer of great clarity and style whi ...more
Jul 01, 2007 rated it really liked it
Honestly, I could give two shits about Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. I've never read The Bell Jar, although I've heard it's quite good. My interest is in Janet Malcolm, the way she has insinuated herself into one of the great battles of modern literature, taking as her subject not so much Plath or Hughes or Plath & Hughes, but their memories, the way they are written about and argued about.

Poets, like politicians it seems, have partisans. And while such folks allow themselves to have a personal inv
Sarah Funke
Apr 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
Smartest book on biography I've ever read. Purports to be about Plath and Hughes but it really about the history of Plath/Hughes biography, and about the project of writing a life more generally. Fascinating, insightful, and some lovely writing. Some representative good bits: "The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism's uncontested privileges, and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its widely accepted conventions." Quoting A. Alvarez on Ted Hughes: "T ...more
Feb 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I found this provocative, really smart, and fascinating. It's pretty much an anti-biography, questioning from the start the whole enterprise of writing--or reading--a biography, on ethical grounds, and also because of the interpretative leaps and elisions required to present what appears to be a coherent rendering of a life. Which Malcolm stubbornly refused to do; she includes her doubts, her sense of her own biases--even her errors, in the interesting endnote added after the original publicatio ...more
The whole psychodrama of the "Hughes vs. Plath" literary industry is deeply boring to me, despite my love for the work of both poets, so I wasn't expecting much from The Silent Woman . . . but it turns out that Janet Malcolm is in agreement re: the inherent lameness of that topic, and so she instead produced a brilliant and original analysis of biography-writing, self-creation, the publishing industry, and literature as such (along with, almost as an afterthought, insightful readings of Plath's ...more
Apr 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Not a biography but an essay on biography using the famous platform of Hughes/Plath. Way to market something most people wouldn't have read if it was called "Vagaries of the Biography."
Plath and Hughes were picked over again, nothing new here, the other 5 well known bio's have done it before.
It did interest me that Malcolm sided with the Hughes.
Olwyn may have been protective of Ted but she was also a bully and easily as difficult and unpleasant as Sylvia is accused of being.
And Ted, yes, he's ha
Dave Schaafsma
Feb 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a kind of meditation on biography, on the impossibility of the enterprise in any serious sense. I mean, we crave them, we study celebrity, but even with the journals, the drawings, the poems, the essays, and novel, we see different people, contradictory, and the plain of public and critical opinion is so heated that we realize with her help that we have no idea who she was, and no idea what her marriage was to Hughes. This doesn't stop us from obsessing about it, me included, we seem to ...more
Mar 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
"The questions raised by the passage only underscore the epistemological uncertainty by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in The Golden Bowl that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping ...more
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in THE GOLDEN BOWL that the prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is 'overreacting' to what she sees. James's is a true report. The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that ...more
Aug 01, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I've read several of Malcolm's books,
I like the lucidity of her writing,
and I like how she includes information about the process of writing.

This book isn't so much about Plath, a trivial figure in the world of literature,
as it is about the battle between waring camps of biographers,
and the process of writing.
And some of the rules and ethics of the various types of writings.

Much of her work is in the genre of Tracy Kidders book,
The soul of a new machine,
which is about the process.

And the ma
Nov 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book! In exploring the process of biography & the Sylvia Plath legend, it teaches you a lot about her and Hughes but also about both the difficulties of trying to tell someone's life story--fact, fiction, truth, speculation, etc.--especially when that person is dead and people close to him/her are still alive. Great read! ...more
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction … only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.”

This book confirms it: I am an unabashed Janet Malcolm fanboy. I can’t get enough of her sleek little letter bombs, masked by the genteel New Yorker house style, all dressed up in her patented, surgical prose: erudite, witty, cutting, and ever-so-elegan
Grace Kao
Mar 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am blown away by this book. Janet Malcolm is a hell of a writer. This is not so much a book about Sylvia Plath as it is a book about the nature of biography, and what it means to die and have everyone you have ever known (and many you have never known) construct and reconstruct and entirely fabricate your life from fragments. This is a book about the creation of the legend of Sylvia Plath, genius housewife poet, wronged woman, Lady Lazarus who rose from the dead and ate men like air, patron sa ...more
Janet Malcolm is my newest favorite provocative journalist. What Jessica Mitford did for the prison and funeral industries, Janet Malcolm is doing for biography and journalist. I started out with The Journalist and the Murderer and moved on from there.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) ma
Sep 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
a biography about biographies and specifically about the Sylvia Plath cottage industry.
what is truth? The responsibility of the biographer vs the irresponsibility of the journalist. and that the reasoned 'truthful' 'responsible' biography is paint drying dull; dishwater dull, when compared to the salacious memoir.
Extra complicated when Plath herself presented so many versions of herself; so many 'selves'.
I am just a vulture. A relative newcomer to the Legend that is Plath and Hughes/Hughes and
Nov 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Janet Malcolm seems to delight in sneering at everyone and everything (including biography itself) but never enough to seem nasty. It is a celebration of the fickle, self-centred, multi-faceted nature of human beings as much as it is about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

'The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.'

I love the picture she builds up of the 'players' in the legend of Sylvia Plath. They mainly get torn a
Feb 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
This is another book that I associate with a particular moment in my life. I read it all in one night, I think, in my dorm room.

The prevailing theory in my class about this one is that Ms. Malcolm was er... interested in Mr. Hughes.
Jan 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
Some quite refreshing perspectives on the art of biography but the writer clearly is, as she states, for the Hughes side of the story which leads to unevenness and at times an attempt to vilify Sylvia Plath and romanticize Hughes and gloss over his affairs.
Jul 26, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: l-like-library
Reading this taught me absolutely nothing about Sylvia Plath, even less about Ted Hughes, but instead a billion details about all the people who were involved in writing her biographies. That's not what I came for though. ...more
Hank Stuever
Jul 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
A great literary investigation that sort of blows the whole notion of biography out of the water. Very memorable. I'd read Janet Malcolm on just about anything. ...more
Rebecca Morales
Aug 13, 2020 rated it it was ok
So I gave this book two stars because I feel like a book called Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes should be about exactly that. Maybe the Silent Woman part is partially a reference to the fact that this isn't actually a biography and its title subjects so much as it's about biographers biography-ing? The book was incredibly well written and interesting, I flew through it in days as it was gripping...but I learned far more about what other biographers experienced writing about Sylvia and more about Olw ...more
Aniko Carmean
Feb 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
THE SILENT WOMAN is author Janet Malcolm's journey to understand "the problems of biographical writing." Sylvia Plath, her biographers, and Plath's (then) living relatives are the exemplar Malcolm dissects. THE SILENT WOMAN reads like a journal, and Malcolm sets the scene for countless interviews with no less precision and detail than any fine mystery novelist setting the scene for her detective's great unveiling. The book is thought-provoking and, although details about Plath abound, THE SILENT ...more
Mae Sterrett
Jan 29, 2021 rated it did not like it
This book is wildly biased against Sylvia Plath as a human being from the beginning. The writer openly loves Ted Hughes to a point of fangirling. She spends an entire page criticising someone for telling her that he didn't think Sylvia was attractive and then opens the next paragraph by telling the reader that the author also doesn't think Sylvia was attractive.

Weirdly blase about the overwhelming mountain of bad behaviors and questionable life events of Ted Hughes. Feels sympathy for a man, ra
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: for-school
read this for my nonfic class for school - loved it, really, and only took longer than I needed because it was so worth savoring. a great biographical non-biography, study of humans, truth, storytelling, memory, etc. I laughed out loud more than I expected to, and I also can't stop thinking about Al Alvarez's anecdote about his female friend - a psychoanalyst, he specifies, to clarify that she's not just ANY woman - who upon meeting Ted Hughes had to go to the bathroom to THROW UP because he was ...more
Julie Bozza
Absolutely superb. This is biography meta, investigating the subject, and its practices and impossibilities, via a focus on the biographies and the biographers of Sylvia Plath - which inevitably involve Ted Hughes in all kinds of ways.

I am fascinated by biography (as a black art?) and I love a good literary biography in particular, so I was glued to every page. (Which is such a bad metaphor I can't even...)

Highly recommended!
Thea Scott
Oct 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: all-time-faves
one of the best biographies I've read and one of the best and most interesting understandings of Sylvia Plath ...more
Jan 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Caroline by: #WLClub
1. Malcolm's short contributor's bio: "Janet Malcolm has been writing for The New Yorker since 1963, when the magazine published her poem “Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House.”

2. The first line from The Journalist and the Murderer (1990): "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

3. Oh, this adjusts every biography I'll read. Malcolm's presence, how she enters or recedes from a scene, is fascinating
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Janet Malcolm is a journalist, biographer, collagist, and staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of In the Freud Archives and The Crime of Sheila McGough , as well as biographies of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Anton Chekhov.

The Modern Library chose her controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer — with its infamous first line — as one of the 100 best non-fi

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“Life, of course, never gets anyone's entire attention. Death always remains interesting, pulls us, draws us. As sleep is necessary to our physiology, so depression seems necessary to our psychic economy. In some secret way, Thanatos nourishes Eros as well as opposes it. The two principles work in covert concert; though in most of us Eros dominates, in none of us is Thanatos completely subdued. However-and this is the paradox of suicide-to take one's life is to behave in a more active, assertive, "erotic" way than to helplessly watch as one's life is taken away from one by inevitable mortality. Suicide thus engages with both the death-hating and the death-loving parts of us: on some level, perhaps, we may envy the suicide even as we pity him. It has frequently been asked whether the poetry of Plath would have so aroused the attention of the world if Plath had not killed herself. I would agree with those who say no. The death-ridden poems move us and electrify us because of our knowledge of what happened. Alvarez has observed that the late poems read as if they were written posthumously, but they do so only because a death actually took place. "When I am talking about the weather / I know what I am talking about," Kurt Schwitters writes in a Dada poem (which I have quoted in its entirety). When Plath is talking about the death wish, she knows what she is talking about. In 1966, Anne Sexton, who committed suicide eleven years after Plath, wrote a poem entitled "Wanting to Die," in which these startlingly informative lines appear: But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
When, in the opening of "Lady Lazarus," Plath triumphantly exclaims, "I have done it again," and, later in the poem, writes, Dying 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, we can only share her elation. We know we are in the presence of a master builder.”
“This is what it is the business of the artist to do. Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.” 22 likes
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