A cautionary tale of choice and will

“Plath’s story is rich in symbolism as it navigates the themes of apathy, unawareness, and an individual’s refusal to exercise one’s own will,” writes Anuradha Prasad.

“Mother, I can’t go today. I simply can’t. I’m not ready to take the trip yet.”

Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom, by Sylvia Plath. Harper Perennial, 2019.

An unpublished work from the archives of Sylvia Plath, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” saw the light of day recently. The story, originally written in 1952 when Plath was a student, was rejected by Mademoiselle.

The short story is about a young woman, Mary Ventura, and her train journey that she is reluctant to undertake. She is urged to by her indifferent but insistent parents. On the train, she meets an unusual and unnamed woman. As the journey progresses, Mary suddenly wakes up to the oddness of the journey – the strange tickets, the stranger names of the stations, and her co-passengers. She turns to the unnamed woman for answers as the train makes its way to the final stop, the Ninth Kingdom.

“It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will.”

The story is rich in symbolism as it navigates the themes of apathy, unawareness, and an individual’s refusal to exercise one’s own will. It calls out the dangers of feigning choicelessness. With each reading, and knowing the author’s personal struggles, new interpretations are possible.

Plath uses many colours, often repeating the colour red which symbolises danger and warning. The story, in fact, begins with “red neon lights.” Later, Mary slips off her “red coat,” a possible allusion to “Little Red.” The unnamed woman is associated with earthy colours of brown and leafy green. However, the symbolism of colours is lost in the sea of colours that surface over the course of the story, where everything is described with a colour.

“The awareness strikes them too late, and they regret buying the ticket. Regret doesn’t help, though. They should have thought about taking the trip beforehand.”

The train moves through a dark tunnel but returns to the openness where the sun is shining, even though bleakly, suggesting hope. As the final destination approaches, Mary has to choose, and choose wisely.

Plath’s descriptions are naïve though there is an undercurrent of strength and urgency in the story that keeps the reader anticipating, moving forward. The sentences don’t cut, prod, and hammer with the precision that is seen in Plath’s later work. Apart from being a cautionary tale, if ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ serves a purpose, it is to act as a marker that establishes Plath’s maturing as a writer.

Anuradha Prasad is a writer and editor living in Bangalore, India. She writes short fiction and has been published in Muse India and Literally Stories.

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