Letter to the Editor: Plath’s Dante in “Mary Ventura”
In the midst of my research at Smith College as a Ruth Mortimer Fellow, Karen V. Kukil showed me Sylvia Plath’s recently rediscovered story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” printed with her accompanying essay in the last issue of The Hudson Review. She invited me, dantista that I am, to read it, searching for further resonances with Dante’s work. I did so with great delight and interest, also because I have lately been mulling over Dante’s influence in America, which may be best summarized as rather strong yet often unrecognized. This story by Plath well serves as a case in point.
“Mary Ventura” is an almost systematic adaptation of the Inferno, written by a brilliant twenty-year-old Smith student who, as Ms. Kukil informed us in her essay, had just finished reading Dante’s poem. Her story is as sad as it is beautifully written, being ultimately, I believe, a fantasizing allegory of suicide, which a juxtaposed reading of Plath and Dante makes clear. But I’ll start from the beginning, featuring only key correspondences here (one could feature more), thus moving briskly through what could almost be called Plath’s Inferno.
Instead of a journey by foot through Hell, as the fictionalized Dante does in the first canticle of the Commedia, Plath’s story is set on a train. Dante’s journey through Hell is destined for the ninth and final circle, his imagined space of damnation being a carefully divided and subdivided realm. In Plath’s story, Mary—perhaps Plath’s own self-fictionalization—also passes through divided terrain; nine stops, the train destined for the last one, the Ninth Kingdom. Mary gains a guide, a woman she meets near the start of the story, before the train begins moving. This nameless guide has taken the trip before and can thus (mostly) help her navigate the journey and give advice at key moments. The same is true of Virgil, Dante’s guide.
Near the start of Plath’s story there is a gate, which Mary hesitates to enter and begin her trip; Dante also doubts his journey before undertaking it. Ultimately convinced, he passes through Hell’s gate, which includes the inscribed words, “Abandon all hope, you who enter.” Mary too is convinced to move ahead: she “weakened” and said “oh, well, all right.”
The first sight inside the gates of Hell is that of the indifferent. Never standing for a cause, they are rejected, even, from a place in Hell proper. The first sight, upon the movement of the train, are boys fighting, drawing blood, all while their mother indifferently reads her magazine.
Early in the train ride, they pass through a tunnel, and they will later pass through another. Each corresponds, in juxtaposed readings, to rivers that Dante crosses. After traversing the River Acheron, Dante reaches the first circle, within which stands the Castle of Limbo where virtuous pagans, who lived before Christ, dwell; Plath’s Mary sees a building that looks like a house, which used to be the first station on the line. After Christ, no more new souls were destined for the Castle, and as for that building on the line, “they don’t use it much any more.”
After Limbo is the second circle, inhabited by the lustful, who are blown about by a wind, mimicking their hollow pursuit; after the abandoned station, Mary sees a scarecrow, its “coat wavered in the wind, empty, without substance.”
The next stop on Dante’s journey is the third circle, inhabited by the gluttons. Correspondingly, in Plath’s story, immediately following the sight of the scarecrow, Mary’s Virgil leads her to the dining car. On the way, they pass card tables where “most of the men were playing poker,” and after dining, Mary and her guide debate the payment of the bill. The fourth circle of Dante’s Hell consists of the avaricious and prodigal.
The train heads into a second tunnel; after the fourth circle, Dante traverses the River Styx. Just before the tunnel, a baby cries and a businessman reacts, “Damn brat.” The fifth circle of Hell houses the wrathful and the sullen. Returning to their seats, Mary savors a chocolate and praises the comforts of the ride. The sixth circle of hell includes the Epicureans.
At this point in the story, Plath moves in a different direction. But not until after she comments on Dante’s Hell, through the mouth of the nameless guide who refers to “all the absurd little divisions and subdivisions and classifications,” shortly followed by an especially playful line: “I was talking in circles.” Mary witnesses a scuffle with a passenger who wishes to stay on, which prods her to ask about their destination. It is, she learns from her guide, “the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will.” Hell’s ninth circle in the Inferno is a frozen lake; here the cold is internal. Mary better understands the train’s destination as they are about to pass the spot called the Seventh Kingdom—and in Dante’s Hell, the seventh circle includes the suicides.
With “the one assertion of the will remaining,” plus her guide’s encouragement (“You must make the break yourself,” and “don’t hesitate, no matter what”), Mary pulls the cord, stops the train, and runs to the Seventh Kingdom. It is a scene of desperation, followed by discomfort and darkness, and then “fertile gold webs of sunlight” emerge in an Eden-like space, akin to Earthly Paradise at the conclusion of Purgatorio. Mary’s guide reappears, as her Beatrice.
Plath received an A- for this story. Had her professor known his Dante, I wonder whether that grade would have changed. Without Inferno, an understanding of “Mary Ventura” is incomplete. Eight months after writing this story, Plath seriously attempted suicide. Far more important than a grade, one wonders: had that professor, or her mother who retyped the story, or the editor of Mademoiselle who rejected it, known their Dante, perhaps they would have recognized her need for help. As an allegory of suicide, “Mary Ventura” foreshadowed Plath’s first failed attempt at it, and her tragic success the decade following.
Matthew Timothy Collins
Series Editor, Reading Dante with Images,
Harvey Miller Publishers