Literary Marriages from Hell

“Why does some of the best poetry emerge from the charred ruins of a tortured relationship?” asks Betsy Berry, lecturer in the Department of English.

That’s the question students tackle in her popular course, “Literary Marriages from Hell,” which examines the lives of doomed literary couples and the masterpieces of literature they produced.

Students read books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night,” which immortalized his relationship with his wife Zelda (who suffered from schizophrenia), and analyze poems such as “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, which portrayed her troubled relationships with both her father and British poet laureate Ted Hughes.

“Plath and Hughes are the students’ perennial favorite couple to study,” Berry says. “The volume of work that sprang from their union is simply amazing.”

Along with engaging in textual criticism, the class screens films such as “Sylvia,” the 2003 biopic of Plath’s life starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig.

“In studying the relationships that informed the authors’ creativity, students gain a deeper reading of some of the great literature of the 20th century,” Berry says. “However, it’s important to note the works stand on their own, regardless of the context of their creation.”

Ready to dive into some messy relationships, but great literature? Check out the required reading list from the course syllabus:

• “The Waste Land and Other Poems” by T.S. Eliot;
• “Tender is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald;
• “Birthday Letters” by Ted Hughes;
• “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath;
• “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath.

An earlier version of this story first appeared in the Winter 2008-09 issue of Life & Letters, the College of Liberal Arts alumni magazine.