Sylvia Plath and the linguistics of depression

Could the type of language people use reveal something about their state of mind? A close reading of Sylvia Plath’s journals suggest it might be possible. The Open University’s Zsófia Demjén takes a look.

4 min readJul 8, 2017
Plath’s time at the McLean hospital in Belmont inspired her best-known work, The Bell Jar. Image by John Phelan under CC-BY licence

People who experience mental disorders like depression are the foremost experts in what that feels like for them, which can determine what ways are most effective at alleviating their distress.

Yet, this immensely valuable expertise often remains untapped. In the healthcare system, there may not always be enough time to devote to unpicking the rich accounts of people’s experiences, but as budding and practicing linguists there is a lot we can contribute.

Linguistics provides tools and techniques that, when applied to such accounts, bring to the fore how people describe what it feels like to be anxious or depressed, or to hear voices that others can’t hear. And the ways in which people express themselves can tell us as much about what they think and feel as the content of what they’re actually saying.

Looking at the language

As a case study, recently published as a book, I looked at the language of Sylvia Plath, the American-born novelist and poet, who was diagnosed with depression in her early twenties. Plath chronicled her inner life in extensive personal diaries and these are invaluable in giving us insights into what it was like for her to have depressive and suicidal thoughts.

By comparing Plath’s journals to other autobiographical writings using the corpus analysis software Wmatrix, I was able to show for example, that she statistically significantly overused words and expressions that suggested a categorical, polarized world view (e.g. always, never, everyone, nobody, all, nothing etc.).

She seemed to see the world in stark contrasts more than others. At the same time, she also overused first-person pronouns like I, me, and my. She seemed to relate external events and goings on to herself and to view things mostly from her own inner perspective.

This, to some extent, is expected in diaries and autobiographies, but Plath overused first-person pronouns statistically significantly compared to similar types of texts. This allows us to say that she was actually more focused on her own perspective than would be expected in the genre that she was writing in.

Plath’s use of metaphor

Plath’s also frequently used creative metaphors to describe her feelings and mental states. Metaphors give us a way of talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another and can convey complex meanings vividly and concisely.

A striking finding was that Plath used metaphors more frequently and more creatively when she was writing about negative mental states than when she was writing about being satisfied, happy or proud. This difference in frequency and creativity, suggests that Plath experienced negative feelings more intensely, more viscerally.

In fact, intensity is something that comes across in the types of metaphors she used as well. She described her own mind as caged, and impotent, but at the same time as self-reviling, an imposter. She wrote about feeling split into multiple, conflicted selves, my honest self revolted at this, hated me for doing this, where parts of her would have liked to think, feel and behave differently, but other parts prevented her from doing so.

She even used the second-person pronoun ‘you’ to refer to the unresponsive parts of herself, as if trying to use language to regain control: An outlet you need, and they are sealed. You live night and day in the dark cramped prison you have made for yourself. There seemed to be a pain consuming her from within as she tried to hide her state of mind: afraid that the disease which eats away the pith of my body with merciless impersonality will break forth in obvious sores and warts.

These metaphors are in stark contrast with common perceptions of depression as feeling sad, down, or low in energy, revealing instead an experience of inner conflict, contradiction and pain.

Then, in the summer of 1953, just a month before Plath attempts to take her own life, creative figurative language almost disappears from her writing. It becomes more fragmented, almost like stream-of-consciousness:

First think: here is your room — here is your life, your mind: don’t panic. Begin writing, even if it is only rough & ununified. First, pick your market: Journal or Discovery? Seventeen or Mlle? Then pick a topic. Then think. If you can’t think outside yourself, you can’t write. (Entry July 6, 1953)

It almost seems like when Plath is feeling at her worst, only bare narrative will do to express the rawness of her mental state. She seems to emote rather than describe her emotions. This may be further indication of the intensity of the experience for her. After all, in order to describe what we feel, we need to be able to distance ourselves to some extent.

In my research, I’m interested in whether and how the types of insights I describe here can be used in clinical practice. Can we learn more about disorders like depression from taking people’s personal expert accounts seriously? It would seem so. Can we develop ways of assessing people’s level of distress through the language that they use? Possibly. Can we gain insights that might suggest different ways of helping people in distress? I certainly hope so.

Further reading

Zsofia Demjen’s Sylvia Plath and the Language of Affective States: Written Discourse and the Experience of Depression is published by Bloomsbury. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by K Kukil, is published by Anchor Books.

This article was originally published in April 2017 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.




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