Off the Rails: Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom

Of course it’s no coincidence that Sylvia Plath wrote an allegorical tale about heading to purgatory via train just months before her first suicide attempt at the age of twenty. While Plath’s mother, Aurelia, was brought up Catholic, Plath herself seemed only to flirt with the religion for different, largely erudite reasons throughout her lifetime, using it for the purpose of Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom for the convenient literary device of likening Mary’s long train journey to the in-between land leading to perdition. For, as we all know, girls who punch their own ticket don’t end up in heaven, or even hell (which seems strange, you know? To not garner an extreme result for such an extreme action).

Dropped off by her mother and father (knowing Plath’s daddy issues, very deliberately described as looking “anonymous”), the tableau of the train station is wielded for the purposes of exemplifying the slippage of time, the ticking of minutes and how a train (a.k.a. life/fate) waits for no passenger. Whether they’re ready or not, the train must leave the track, and once one makes the decision to get on it (i.e. kill themselves), there is no turning back (though now, in addition to Esther Greenwood, two Plath characters have managed to). As Mary’s father tersely puts it, “You know how trains are. They don’t wait.” Mary ruefully responds, “Yes, father, I know,” adding internally, “The long black hand of the clock on the wall clipped off another minute.” Tick tock, tick tock being the goading phrase constantly in Plath’s mind as she strove to be successful at a certain age while also being well-aware of her “womanly duty” to also get married and birth children by a certain age, in turn rendering all of her prior success but an ephemeral moment in time.

The multiple mentions of how the train was located at “track three” or “gate three” seem to reference not just the obviousness of the Holy Trinity, but both the three phases of life (childhood, adulthood, old age) and three potential options after that life, by the standards of Catholicism (heaven, purgatory or hell).

With an older woman–presumably one who has possibly survived a few times from her own attempts at suicide or perhaps some type of guardian angel–serving as gently ominous counsel to the young Mary on how to escape her “final destination,” we get the sense that maybe Plath subconsciously wished she did have someone of that nature in her own life. Someone who could successfully talk her off the ledge (or, in this case, train).

That the story was originally submitted to and rejected by Mademoiselle only adds to its earnestly boiling just under the surface rage, masked by what literary critics deem the “puerility” of a young writer’s need to overly describe details in order to give weight and seriousness to what they’re saying. Naturally, one of the great ironies about reading a posthumously published story from Plath is just how serious she ultimately was about the subject matter on which she speaks: suicide.

But, more than this matter, we also get a distinct sense of time and place in the forty-page story, particularly in fleeting descriptions that evoke a strong sense of the racial divide of the 1950s and of Plath’s unwitting privilege in how she looks upon them. Even on the train to death the discrepancy in how races are treated is still evident as Plath keeps describing “the black waiter” taking their drink orders. For a black man can’t even die without being in the service of white people. Although it’s patent that Plath is still learning how to rein in her inexpert mentions of color (her hues of choice being red and orange), her constant mention of the color of things latently speaks to the innate American need to classify skin tone by its pigment in terms of how a person ought to be treated.

Like some sort of poacher of life from the reaper, the woman Mary strikes up a conversation with is known on the train by certain servers, being asked the question, “You making this trip again?” That she is, and all so as to provoke thought from Mary’s complacency, remarking, “The passengers are so blasé, so apathetic that they don’t even care about where they are going.” So it would appear that people are just as blasé about their impending death as they are about life, the two entities being so inextricably linked.

And though Mary is at first nervous and uneasy about the “journey,” she, too, feels all at once contented to simply let the “ride”–death–overtake her like a warm blanket. At the start, however, she is wary, as elucidated by the following: “‘Mother,’ Mary said, halting, hearing the colossal hissing of the engine on the sunken track. ‘Mother, I can’t go today. I simply can’t. I’m not ready to take the trip yet.’ ‘Nonsense, Mary,’ her father cut her short jovially… ‘and don’t worry about another thing until you get to the end of the line.'”

By the time it becomes apparent what her progenitors are so eagerly ushering her toward, one definitely has to show some respect for the avant-garde nature of Mary Ventura’s parents, the first of their kind not to be narcissistic enough to be into their child simply because she is their creation. Instead seeming to want nothing more to do with her, to wash their own lives of the blemish that was, to them, her birth. Mary, in contrast, chooses to avoid the metaphorical “ninth kingdom,” proving to be the stain that life just can’t get out, almost as a means to spite both existence and those who brought her into it. Either that, or it’s as Ariana Grande said and “God is a woman” as Mary flees the train and emerges into a heaven-like park (minus that part that describes “the laughter of children playing”) where the same woman awaits her.

Whether or not Plath’s previously unpublished allegory is intended to be a reaffirmation of life or the most wonderful portrait of death if purgatory can be evaded, it’s safe to say that, despite the criticism it has received, if this is what Plath’s unpublished work was capable of, it’s no wonder Ted Hughes felt such a constant need to suppress her.

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