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.

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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

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.

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.

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.

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