Like most forms of art, literature tends to find greatness with age. After studying works such as Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’, I was intrigued by the distressing, grisly tones that permeated the majority of the work. In light of modern pressures to conform to political sensitivity, whether socially or artistically, a question then arises: is it morally correct to discredit writers of the past due to their controversial works? 

Sylvia Plath, author of the iconic 1963 novel ‘The Bell Jar’, has since embroiled the literary world with a mixed critical reception, specifically in relation to the poem ‘Daddy’ in her famous collection ‘Ariel’, written only a short time before her death. Namely, one disputation of Plath’s work derives from the appropriation of Jewish trauma she imbues throughout her work - whether using this in vain to demonstrate familial disagreements through petty shock factor, or to create a culturally unitive piece of imagery that seeks to legitimize both religious and gendered struggles. Written in the 1960s, Plath injects phrases such as “..chuffing me off like a Jew”, “Every woman adores a fascist”, and “..with your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo,” in order to illustrate both the strained relationship with her late father, Otto, as well as the suppression she felt due to her mental health and sex. For these words, many boycott Plath. Ultimately, who is she to take on the voice of an entire race of ostracized and near-eradicated people, to figuratively strangle her father and label him a Nazi for the crimes of his paternal remoteness? The two struggles are surely incomparable, but the question then arises of whether this controversy entirely nullifies Plath’s own prominence as a great and inspiring writer.

I first came upon Plath’s poetry in an English class this year, made up of solely non-Jewish, teenage girls. The reaction was, for the most part, united - that although the language was morally-compromised, generally uncomfortable for anyone to hear, the cringe that spread from most of us probably incited the exact reaction that Plath desired from her audience, as if to feel the physical squashing of her father’s ghostly hands that she had been subject to for so many years. Furthermore, to put it frankly, Plath was dead. Was there a point in spurning the vast, highly rated collection of her work simply because of the person behind it?

As a politically inexperienced, non-Jewish student myself, I’m not personally suggesting a ‘correct’ way to recieve culturally offensive poetry, nor that we should totally condemn these bodies of work, especially those that have aged into modern sentiments of political correctness rather than being borne of them. Andrea Okun, a resident of West London and a teacher at her local Synagogue, comments that “Ultimately, you either write about the Holocaust or you don’t, but I’m unsure [that] stigmatising it is really the solution.” However, she furthers this: “That’s not to say it should be used as a light metaphor to analogise any type of suffering, and perhaps Sylvia Plath’s metaphor was insensitive; however, I think establishing intersectionality is important and it seems ineffectual to disregard the Holocaust and deem it an untouchable topic.”

The debate of ‘the Art vs. the Artist’ has raged on for many years, and will likely continue to do so as we socially progress. It appears that omitting the artist entirely is worthy of skepticism, allowing for worryingly total artistic freedom and opinion without consequence. However, learning critical evaluation is important so as not to permit the mistakes of the past; perhaps in this way, the artist, regardless of age, should stay in the picture, though not to be left resting on a pedestal too high to later tear down.