The Many Faces of Sylvia Plath: Photographs in Literary Biographies

  • Sophie Mayr Universität Wien


Biography—unlike fiction—is a referential genre (Lejeune 1994, 39-40), it constantly refers to a kind of truth or reality that lies outside the textual level. Photographs in biographies function as powerful referring devices, because, as Roland Barthes (1980) put it, the essence of the photograph is “ça-a-été” (120). Regardless of this evidential character, photographs do not usually stand for themselves in biographies. They need description and textual explanation and are, thus, reduced to a merely illustrative function. This paper analyses photographs in four biographies on Sylvia Plath, who is the subject of more than 20 different literary portraits. It shows that there is a strong emphasis on Plath’s private life on the one hand, and a lack of Plath’s craft and public life on the other. By using Marita Sturken’s (1999) concept of “cultural memory” (178), this article argues that a strict differentiation between public and private cannot help us read and understand the photographs in Plath’s biographies.


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