Sylvia Plath… Nature Writer?

Marlena Williams on the Poet's Fraught Relationship with the Wild

The day my boyfriend and I arrived in Lassen Volcanic National Park, multiple campers reported bear encounters deep in the backcountry trails around Crater Butte and Twin Lakes. The bears had approached their tents and dug through their backpacks, continuing on even as the terrified campers clapped and yelled. This, the National Park Service announced, is a learned behavior. Over the years, bears have realized that humans pose no real threat, especially not the kind of humans who forget to store their food in bear-proof canisters while camping. No one was killed, thankfully, but the park closed the area for 60 days in order to “reduce negative human interaction and provide the bears with a period to return to normal foraging behavior.”

With summer travel plans grounded by the pandemic, Andre and I drove down to Northern California from Portland to see Lassen’s steaming fumaroles, bubbling sulfur lakes, and miles-long lava beds. On our first full day in the park, we opted for a short backcountry hike to Chaos Crags, a cluster of six dacite domes with a small lake at their base. Though a ranger assured us that a bear encounter was unlikely in this part of the park, she did warn us of a recent river otter incident at nearby Manzanita Lake in which a female otter attacked a male swimmer when he got too close to her kittens. The Park Superintendent speculated that the otters had grown used to human-free waters during the recent park closure and now saw the sudden influx of visitors as an invasion.

On the way to the trailhead, Andre and I got into a fight, or perhaps I should say a short, tense exchange over directions, of all things. I was driving, Andre directing. I asked him where I should turn and while he unfolded the map to check, we missed the trailhead. This annoyed me and my annoyance annoyed him. The whole exchange lasted maybe thirty-five seconds before sizzling into white-hot silence. By the return trip, our anger had mostly faded, but for the first two miles of the hike, every petty resentment and slight of our four years together roiled silently to the surface and I found myself thinking once again of Sylvia Plath’s short story “The Fifty-Ninth Bear.”

*

I read “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” when I was fifteen, shortly after finishing The Bell Jar and finding myself wracked with fear that I would soon be sitting in the crotch of a fig tree, starving and surrounded by blackened fruit. It was the same summer I had all sorts of profound revelations about how my parents would one day die and all my dreams might not come true. I found “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of unpublished prose featuring an introduction by Ted Hughes. In the story, a young couple travels to Yellowstone and places a bet between themselves on how many bears they will see before their trip ends. Norton, the husband, guesses seventy-one. Sadie, the wife, fifty-nine.

The boiling hydrothermal landscape of Yellowstone sets Norton ill-at-ease, and he spends most of the trip sluggish and depressed. To Norton, the cracked ground is “frail as a bird’s skull under his feet, a mere shell of sanity and decorum between him and the dark entrails of the earth where the sluggish muds and scalding waters had their source.” Instead of marveling at the rainbow pools and steam-powered geysers alongside his wife, Norton often stays behind and watches with mild disdain as her peaked straw hat disappears into the throngs of tourists. Sadie returns from these excursions frustrated and resentful: an elk dashes away before she can get a photograph, a hot gust of steam “nearly [scalds] her to death,” a group of boys talk to her on the boardwalk, disrupting her solitude. As Sadie and Norton drive to lunch on their final day in the park, hoping a sandwich will improve their bleak moods, Sadie sobs, “I didn’t ask anything else…All I asked was the pools and the springs.” It is unclear whether it is Norton or Yellowstone who have truly disappointed her.

That night, as Norton and Sadie sleep in the musty warmth of their tent, they hear a loud crash outside: a bear, riffling through the trunk of their car. At Sadie’s urging, Norton climbs out into the moonlight and attempts to shoo the bear away. “Get out of here, you,” he says, eying the “grotesque crumble of straw” at the bear’s feet from where it has just torn about Sadie’s beloved hat. The bear then gores Norton to death while Sadie watches. Plath writes, “The darkness fisted and struck…A hot nausea flared through his heart and bowels. He struggled, tasting the thick, sweet honey that filled his throat and oozed from his nostrils. As from a far and rapidly receding planet, he heard a shrill cry—of terror, or triumph, he could not tell.” Sadie has won the bet; the bear is the fifty-ninth.

It wasn’t the violence of the ending that so terrified me when I read the story at fifteen. In fact, the violence was my favorite part. It was brutal and shocking and sublimely satisfying, reminiscent of the bloody finales in the Flannery O’Connor short stories we had recently read in English class. I saw something similar at work in “The Fifty-Ninth Bear:” a gruesome twist meant to teach the reader a lesson about devotion. Unlike The Bell Jar, which not only spoke to my present angst but to the deep existential misery I assumed to be an unassailable fact of existence, “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” foretold a future agony I felt dedicated to avoiding at all costs. I read “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” as a warning: about the petty frustrations and bitter disappointments of marriage, about the dull, sexless plateau stretching through the end of any long-term relationship, about all the many inventive ways you might one day wish your beloved dead. Without knowing much about Plath’s own troubled relationship, “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” taught me about the darker, sulfuric thing bubbling under the surface of love, and I became a person suspicious of heterosexual romance, uninterested in marriage, and utterly depressed by the great, tyrannical institution known as the Couple. I stayed this way for most of my young adult life, lonely but happily committed to myself. That is, until Andre came around.

*

As Andre and I trekked through the dust and pine to Chaos Crags, I stopped every few minutes to clap and make some ridiculous noise I convinced myself would scare off whatever bears happened to be in our midst. It was an absurd punctuation to my inner rage, one I might have found amusing if I wasn’t busy listing off every small way Andre had ever wronged me. I was not, to be clear, imagining Andre getting mauled to death by a bear, though I did briefly wonder what either of us would do if a bear crossed our path and which one of us it would go for first. Rather, I was beset with fear that I had at last become the person “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” made me swear I would never become. I had succumbed to the noxious pull of a committed relationship and now, I told myself bitterly, I was trapped. I was not only someone who said “we” when I once only said “I” but a person who got angry over inconsequential things and then let that anger fester in silence. If a bear did decide to tear into one of our necks while the other watched in fear, the last thing either of us would have felt for each other before horror would have been annoyance, and that struck me in the moment as the particularly sad and obvious end result of romantic love.

*

For what it’s worth, Plath hated “The Fifty-Ninth Bear.” In a journal entry from September 1959, she wrote, “Disgust with the seventeen-page story I just finished: a stiff, artificial piece about a man killed by a bear, ostensibly because his wife willed it to happen, but none of the deep emotional undercurrents gone into or developed. As if little hygienic trap-doors shut out the seethe and deep-grounded swell of my experience.” She then laments, “I just can’t get outside myself.”

Most people with even a passing interest in Plath’s life know about her fraught relationship to fiction. Though she composed poetry with relative ease, she dreamt of writing the type of Frank O’Connor-inspired short stories that would get her published in The New Yorker and bring her money and fame. In her journal, Plath wrote, “For me, poetry is an evasion from the real job of writing prose.” Or, as Ted Hughes put in in his introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, “Her ambition to write stories was the most visible burden of her life.” Her failure to write publishable short fiction was accompanied by an ongoing struggle to “get outside” of herself and capture some notion of objective reality. She wrote, “I shall perish if I can write about no one but myself.”

Though “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” is clearly her attempt to do exactly that, it is still very much rooted in Plath’s own experience. In the summer of 1959, shortly after their moving to the States, Sylvia and Ted set out on a cross country road-trip and spent several days camping in Yellowstone. You can find pictures from the trip in the Smith online archives: Ted standing on the shores of Yellowstone Lake wearing an unbuttoned polo, Sylvia rowing a canoe in a one-piece swimsuit, her hair pulled back into a voluminous ponytail. On the trip, a bear broke into their car but sauntered away with some food without hurting anyone. Plath spent most of the journey anxious about her apparent infertility, her inability to conceive linked to her inability to write proper fiction. She projected her inner turmoil onto the landscape of Yellowstone, turning it into something devilish and threatening. In his own poem titled The Fifty-Ninth Bear, Ted quotes Sylvia, who said of Yellowstone, “This is real evil.”

“The Fifty-Ninth Bear” contains many components of the classic American short story: told from a male’s perspective, set in a great American place, focusing on a marriage between two young, hearty, and assumedly attractive white people. However, it is true that “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” fails to rise to the level of a great short story. Though the language is astounding, it lacks narrative vigor and the characters remain mostly undeveloped sketches. In true poetic fashion, the terrain of Yellowstone feels more menacingly alive than the people. If Plath is mimicking anything in “The Fifty-Ninth Bear,” it seems to be the way certain mid-century American male writers wrote about their wives. Sadie is hysterical, incomprehensible, and ultimately vindictive. She is also a beautiful, bird-like thing for Norton to love and protect. At one point, Norton muses that he can never picture Sadie reaching old age and often pictures himself as a widower: “Her sensuousness, her pagan enthusiasms, her inability to argue in terms of anything but her immediate emotions—this was too flimsy, too gossamer a stuff to survive out from under the wings of his guardianship.”

Many readers might take a certain pleasure in seeing Norton torn apart by a bear, especially if Norton represents some version of Ted, or perhaps some version of the traditional sexist male narrator. Taken this way, Norton’s death at the end of “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” becomes a feminist triumph. Of course, this reading is complicated somewhat if we believe that it was Plath who sensed evil lurking within the landscape of Yellowstone, making Norton her most obvious proxy in the story. It is nonetheless tempting to picture Sylvia enacting some fantasy through this ending, a fantasy she felt the need to cloak by telling it from the presumably “objective” male point of view. Surely many fervent Sylvia fans have wished similarly violent ends upon Hughes. There is something truly satisfying about seeing a fictional version of a much-despised man gored to death under the moonlight. At last, in “The Fifty-Ninth Bear,” it is the wife who gets the final word.

*

The lake was dry when Andre and I got there. The bowl that had once held sparkling aquamarine water was nothing but a dusty brown jumble of volcanic rock. Behind us, an older couple complained volubly and sat down under a tree to eat their sandwiches, outraged that there wasn’t a better view. Nature had failed to live up to their expectations. Andre and I stared at the rocky lakebed for a few minutes and then laughed. It seemed like a fitting end to our hike. As we turned back towards the trailhead, our spirits inexplicably lifted by the disappointment, I made a joke about not taking the dry lake as a metaphor for our relationship.

I realized something then that perhaps should have been obvious. Though “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” is on its surface a biting portrait of a failed American marriage, it is also critiquing a far more vexed and condemnable relationship: the human relationship to the natural world. “The Fifty-Ninth Bear” is a fascinating snapshot of American tourism, a bitter condemnation of the hordes of mostly white travelers who descend upon a beautiful place and claim it as their own. Norton and Sadie represent two different types of American tourists. Sadie is the eager visitor who sees the natural world as a kind of theme park existing for her own amusement. When it fails to live up to her demands for serenity and splendor, she feels slighted. Norton is the respectful admirer who feels a deep kinship to nature yet “a revulsion” for the “mobs” who want to experience it too. When tourists flood around an elk to take a photo, Norton waits “on the top of the slope with a quiet, insular dignity… In his mind he was forming an apology to the elk. He meant well.” Because Norton knows the many ways human beings can ruin a place, he believes he is no longer part of the problem. His awareness is as an excuse from accountability. He’s a tourist, but not like the other tourists.

But of course, Norton is like the other tourists. He’s there, isn’t he? Norton is no different from all of the people who flock to a national park with the secret hope that their hearts will connect with the heart of an animal stranger. He believes he can call forth “a private miracle: he contrived to be favored, by the sight of a doe, say, or the find of a lump of water-polished quartz.” He envisions his soul reaching out across the great species expanse and finding special kindship with the plants and creatures of the natural world, a kinship reserved solely for him. It is this arrogance that prompts Norton to get out of the tent, shoo away the bear, and ultimately meet his death.

Sadie, of course, shares this arrogance, though in a different form. “My bear,” she gasps when she hears the animal outside their tent, “as if she had called it up out of the dark.” Though the story ends with Sadie screaming while Norton breaths his final breaths, there is nothing to suggest that she gets out of the situation alive.

*

On the journey back to our car, Andre and I joked about my inability to pronounce the word “foliage.” We discussed whether or not a certain spot of moss could be considered chartreuse. We looked at each other and giggled while peeing in the sagebrush. I was happy to be there with him and glad neither of us had been gored to death by a bear. We weren’t like Norton and Sadie, at least not in the way I had originally thought, but we were culpable nonetheless. We had traveled to Lassen hoping that the park would offer a spot of brightness after the dark and dull days of the pandemic only to find that the park had been healing itself in our absence and received nothing from our return. Here we were, disturbing the peace, projecting our silly human hopes and fears onto a landscape that cared nothing for them. The park did not need us in the way that we needed it. In fact, it did not need us at all.

Some of the most beautiful and inspiring images from the early days of the pandemic were those of nature returning and regenerating, of animals filling the cities that once were theirs. I consumed the images like everyone else: dolphins swimming through the Venice canals, goats wandering about the empty streets of Wales, flamingos flocking to the wetlands of Mumbai, sealions taking to the sidewalks in Argentina. Like everyone else, I also said things like, “Maybe after this, humans will change. We can’t go back to the way things were.” But of course, we did. I think of the bears at Lassen taking over camp sites and the otters biting men for swimming too close to their young in waters that not so long ago were briefly and blissfully human free. I think of Sylvia Plath’s grizzly tearing into the jugular of the man who thought he was special. In “The Fifty-Ninth Bear,” Plath seems to be saying that nature will eventually revolt against humanity’s relentless incursion, and when it does, there will indeed be a cry of triumph, but it won’t be coming from human mouths.

Marlena Williams
Marlena Williams
Marlena Williams is a writer from Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find her other work at The Rumpus, Across the Margin, Propeller, and the Oregon Encyclopedia.





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