Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was a college professor, and her mother was a master's student who had taken a class from him. When Plath was eight, her father died—an event that was to play a large role in her writing.
From childhood onward, Plath was a driven and exceptional student and writer. She entered Smith College on a full merit scholarship in 1950, and she served as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City in the summer of 1953. Despite serious depression, a suicide attempt, and treatment in a mental health facility, she graduated from Smith College with highest honors in 1955.
In 1955 Plath traveled to England on a Fulbright Scholarship, with a grant to write a novel. In England, she met and married British poet Ted Hughes (1930–1998) and launched her own career as a poet, working on The Bell Jar, her only novel, at intervals.
Plath and Hughes moved to the United States in 1957; there, Plath studied with Robert Lowell Jr., an acclaimed poet known for his confessional verse, which focuses on the personal and often contains a first-person speaker. Plath and Hughes later returned to England, which is where Plath's first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960. Like Lowell, she wrote poetry that was confessional and autobiographical—styles she also used when working on The Bell Jar.
When Plath submitted The Bell Jar to American publisher Harper and Row in 1962, editors dismissed it as immature and overly emotional. Because the book was a roman à clef, a story in which real people appear under invented names, Plath had already decided it should not be published in the United States; she only submitted the manuscript to Harper and Row because the terms of her grant demanded it. The Bell Jar was published in England on January 14, 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and early reviews were indifferent.
The years leading up to the book's publication were difficult. Plath gave birth to two children, and Hughes left her for another woman. The winter of 1962–1963 was one of the coldest in England's history, and Plath spent it with the children—who were often sick—in a chilly flat that had no telephone. Plath was in desperate financial straits, seriously depressed, and struggling to finish her second poetry collection. She called her work "dawn poems in blood." On February 11, 1963, Plath was found with her head in the oven, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning; the children were asleep in a sealed-off bedroom. Plath was 30 years old.
Plath's death made headlines in England but attracted little attention in the United States until the posthumous Harper and Row publication of her second poetry collection in 1965, Ariel. This collection was an instant success, rekindling American editorial interest in The Bell Jar. Ted Hughes had promised Plath's mother that the novel would not be published in the United States, but bootleg copies from Great Britain began to make their way into America and attracted a great deal of attention. Ultimately, Ted Hughes agreed to let Harper and Row publish the novel. When The Bell Jar came out in the United States in 1971, it became an instant success, selling nearly three million copies in paperback.
In 1982 Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.