“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” isclumsy, no getting around that — Plath has a heavy hand, and the novice fiction writer’s conviction that elaborate description will render her world real. We learn the eye color of everyone on board the train; we have coffee explained to us: a “steaming brown liquid.” To drive home the sinister mood, she paints everything plush, bleeding red — the seats, the tickets, the lights, the skirts on passing women.
And yet the story is stirring, in sneaky, unexpected ways. A girl is sent on a trip by her parents, destination unknown. She realizes she is in danger, and with the help of an older woman is able to flee the train on foot, running through dark tunnels and into the light, into a kind of rebirth or paradise. It’s unabashedly Freudian (and Plath herself seemed ambivalent about its merits), but look carefully and there’s a new angle here — on how, and why, we read Plath today.
Various readings of the story seem possible: it could be seen as a journey into the heart of darkness that is modern consumer culture; as a feminist fable; or as a Christian allegory. But it’s hard not to interpret it as an autobiographical expression of Plath’s own struggles.
There is good reason to suppose that Plath would have wanted this work of fiction printed: she submitted it to Mademoiselle magazine in 1953, although it was rejected. The prose is not as radiant as in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, published 11 years later, but there is still plenty to admire: a masterly ratcheting up of tension over 40 pages; short, simple sentences that slip between the ribs. As the heroine, Mary, gradually realises that the destination the train is bound for (the Dantean “ninth kingdom”) is probably not somewhere she’d like to end up, she shrugs off her wearying passivity and takes action.
In December 1952, she was on the brink of the tumultuous year that she would document in her novel The Bell Jar. Within months of completing the story, she would be rejected from the Harvard summer school and would make her first serious suicide attempt, of which she later wrote that she had “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion”.
It doesn’t seem too fanciful to see the story itself as a thought experiment about just such a journey into oblivion. At one end of the line are Mary’s parents, pushing her to a destination of their choosing with more of an eye to social propriety than to the anxieties of their daughter. At the other is a station of no return, of which she knows nothing except that it lies at the end of a long tunnel.