Mary Ventura: Sylvia Plath on an oblivious journey

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

The odd feeling I experienced when I first read these lines in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is still fresh on my mind. As if somebody could put into words the inexplicable feelings I was going through at that point of my life. To read Plath, is to dig deeper into yourself. And what could be more overwhelming than reading an unread, long lost work of such writer. Published by Faber Stories (2019) for the first time since it was written(1952), Mary Ventura and the Ninth kingdom, a short story by Sylvia Plath, will take you on an oblivious journey.

Sylvia Plath
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

About the author

Sylvia Plath(1932-1963) was an American novelist, poet and short story writer. Her contribution in advancing the genre of “confessional poetryis immeasurable. Confessional poetry or confessionalism is the style of poetry that emerged in United States in the 1950s. It focuses on the experiences at an individual level, that includes taboo matters such as mental illness, suicide and sexuality. Also classified as Postmodernism. Her major works includes the poetry collection- The Colossus and other poems, Ariel and The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death.

She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956. They had two children before separating in 1962. Having an ambitiously driven attitude since childhood with an IQ of around 160, it was sad to know she was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and was treated multiple times with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She died by suicide in 1963. She won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1982, for The Collected Poems.

This book is of interest for

  • Short Story readers.
  • Horror Fiction lovers.
  • People looking for books based on Mental Health.

Premise of the book

The short story was written by Sylvia Plath in 1952, when she was a student at Smith College. She submitted it for publication to Mademoiselle Magazine, whose writing prize she had recently won. She spent that summer in New York city, working as an editor for the Mademoiselle. The story was rejected. Two years later, Plath revised the story, changing its title to ‘Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’, in an effort to make it look less sinister. But, the story that Faber has published is the original rejected work. Because it’s the best according to the publishers.

The story begins with Mary Ventura and her parents waiting for her train at the station. The train is routed to go North, in which Ninth Kingdom is the last stop. Mary Ventura is reluctant in leaving her parents and to travel on her own to the Ninth Kingdom. An uneasiness permeates, right from the beginning of the story.

Red neon lights blinked automatically, and a voice grated from the loudspeaker, “Train leaving, on track three…”” Likewise the description of lights here, gives the story a darker touch. Sylvia Plath has written the story describing each and every thing intrinsically- that includes the color of the dresses, details of make-up, colour of the ticket. It’s not surprising that Plath had attempted suicide for the first time, soon after writing this story. Only a depressed person could describe and write about unnoticeable, subtle things with so much precision. When one is aware of how much red is the color red and is able to differentiate between all of its shades.

As the journey starts, Mary befriends a middle aged lady on train, who is warm and friendly to her. She finds solace, but not any longer as something seems cryptic about the lady and the train. The uneasiness heightens when Mary offers to pay for her Chocolate, when Lady stops her and instead presses on paying for her by saying- “You’ll have enough to pay for by the end of the trip.” Then, Mary sees the Lady exchanging smiles with the vendor and finds out that Lady is a frequent traveller here.

Mary’s fear becomes a certainty, when the conductor comes down the aisle to a blond woman. He asks her for the ticket, as it’s her stop to leave. The Blonde woman is scared and refuses to leave, because of which the conductor holds her arms and pushes her from the train. Meanwhile, the Lady exchanges glances with the conductor. She also tells Mary, that generally nobody protests like this. People just accept it when their time comes to leave.

Sylvia Plath

The story reaches its tipping point here. Mary becomes pale with fear, flustered and anxious, she finally asks the Lady about the Ninth Kingdom, she is heading to. Where is this place?What’s so mysterious about this journey? The Lady hesitates first then answers vaguely that Ninth Kingdom is the place of frozen will. Once you get there, there is no turning back.

Mary bursts into tears, she tells Lady she never wanted to come here. Her parents bought the ticket. It was not her wish. To this Lady tells her to accept her fate, because after all she accepted to take this journey instead of rebelling. She is at fault for her situation.

Sylvia Plath

She urges on pulling the emergency cord and to get off anyway. To this, the Lady’s face brightens up. As if she was waiting for this moment, when Mary would herself take the plunge of leaving the train. She tells Mary, there is one last trick and she will help her getting off, at the right time. Mary goes at the back of the car and pulls the cord when Lady tells her, the train stops at the platform of Seventh kingdom. She covers three steps in a leap and keeps on running, till she reaches her final abode.

Like one awakening from a sleep of death, she walked along the gravel path that twinkled with the mica of the little pebbles.”

So you must be satisfied with the ending of the story, right? When I first read it, the ending was oddly satisfying to me. It is categorized under Horror Fiction, I thought there was nothing scary about this book. But reading it again, things started making sense. As a matter of fact, Sylvia Plath, described this story as –a vague-symbolic tale“, while submitting it for publication to Mademoiselle. The vague is the most apt word for it and it’s not surprising to know that such dark, depressing story could be rejected by the magazine. Seeing it coming from a 20-year old student, made it more questionable.

The real-life Mary Ventura was one of the Plath’s high-school friends. Plath had written an earlier story about her, as a part of a creative writing assignment in her second year at Smith. Even though there is no relation of real Mary Ventura’s life with the book. But, I am writing a review so I shouldn’t be missing any specifics related to the book.

I have been writing this review since a very long time, I don’t even remember when I started writing it. I thought may be something is wrong with me, when I read all reviews on Goodreads, nothing looked clear to me. As if, I wanted an assurance that I am thinking in the right direction. Everything Plath writes is in metaphors, which sometimes gets difficult to interpret, and this vague story, it gets more tense. The story could be positive and negative, which depends on your perspective. The similar thing happened when I read Haruki Murakami’s short story- Birthday Girl. Stories that leave it to the reader’s to interpret it.

If I look at it my way, the Ninth Kingdom is a metaphor for the inevitable fate or may be death. The place were everything comes to a standstill. It could also be a metaphor for Depression, getting sucked by it. Plath was suffering from depression and it clearly shows in this disturbing story, about an oblivious journey. When it looks like you lose control of your life and life controls you, just like the train was taking them to its destination and people like Mary had just accepted it blindly. And you have no idea in what direction it’s taking you, but the end is depressing for sure.

Now, one can escape it in two ways- positive or negative. It depends on your will. Mary Ventura surely escaped her destination that is for sure, but still the ending is vague. Either she pulled herself together and escaped the monster called Depression or she just ran away from it, by commiting suicide. So the place she went was either her new Life or Heaven, it’s upto us to interpret. At the end it’s our will, what path we want to choose, either by mending things or letting it fall apart in front of us.

Sylvia Plath

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