In her newly discovered, deliciously vague short story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” writer Sylvia Plath explores the idea of free will in varying shades of doom and claustrophobic foreboding. Plath would go on to become one of the most honored poets of the 1900s, but when she was writing “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” Plath was just a college student trying to make her way in the world, which proved to be welcoming to her words from the time she was young.
At just 8 years old, her poem appeared in the children’s section of the Boston Herald, and over the next several years her work continued to be published in regional magazines and newspapers. Right after graduating high school, she was promoted to the national scale through a publication in the Christian Science Monitor.
This success in her early life carried throughout her college years. In 1950, Plath attended Smith College to study the English language, and thrived academically. Besides editing for the “Smith Review,” she also won a fiction contest for Mademoiselle magazine and was offered the coveted guest editor internship for the publication.
It was around this time, in 1952, that Plath penned her short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” which she wrote as an assignment for her English 220 class, “Practice in Various Forms of Writing.” The next year, she would send it to Mademoiselle for potential publication, only to have it rejected.
In response, Plath edited the story, changed the title, ending and other significant pieces of the work, but never submitted the draft for publication again. The version circulating now is the original draft that was rejected from Mademoiselle, which many critics believe to be the work’s best form.
In “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” Plath writes of a young woman, Mary Ventura, boarding a train at the urging of her parents. While on the train, she meets a kind, resigned woman who has made this journey before. Ventura and this woman experience the train ride together, from the ominous scenery of the black tunnels, sparse fields and smoky sun to interacting with the other seemingly normal passengers.
What they all have in common, and what Ventura soon discovers, is that they are all hurtling to the foreboding Ninth Kingdom, a “kingdom of frozen will” with an unspoken sense of doom — and no one seems to care but Ventura. Her companion, a self-proclaimed repeat traveler on this trip to the Ninth Kingdom, acts as a guide through the journey, eventually offering Ventura an escape from her ostensibly inevitable destination. Ventura takes her advice, fleeing the train and conductors through a dark, snake-filled stairwell and up into a bright, summery city, where she is received with love.
Plath refers to this story as a “vague symbolic tale,” but never specifies what that symbolism means. The images and characters in the story are thus open-ended, offering no concrete explanation as to what the story means. Readers are left to interpret the story as they choose.
What is clear, however, is the theme of the suppressed voice, or free will that doesn’t recognize its freedom. Throughout the story, Ventura, of her own will, is a passive object being acted upon: She allows her parents to place her on the train and ignore her weak attempts at protest, and she submits to the woman on the train’s wishes and defers to her opinions, whatever they may be.
Through the woman’s prompting, Ventura eventually finds her voice and the courage to use it. At the crux of the story, Ventura realizes she’s trapped and begins to panic, telling the woman that it’s not her fault she’s there. The woman pushes back against this exposé of Ventura’s passive view of her own life and voice, reminding her that Ventura allowed herself to be placed on the train instead of standing up for herself.
At last, Ventura responds with her most active, decisive statement in the story: that there is still something she can do, and that she will escape. The woman glows with approval, saying: “That is the one trick left. The one assertion of the will remaining. I thought that, too, was frozen. There is a chance now.” Ventura, in regaining her voice and autonomy, is finally able to escape whatever awaited her in the Ninth Kingdom.
Only a few months after “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” was written, 20-year-old Plath attempted suicide for the first time and began therapy post-hospitalization. She returned to Smith College and graduated summa cum laude, going on to publish a collection of poetry and a semi-autobiographical novel about her experience with depression entitled “The Bell Jar.” Yet, despite these successes, 10 years after her first attempt, Plath took her own life in 1963.
With this knowledge, one might wonder if “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” is, in fact, a symbolic tale about Plath’s own mental health journey, as a sort of precursor to “The Bell Jar.” While that may be true, it’s impossible to know for sure, just as the truth behind what the Ninth Kingdom actually is, or what the rich, mysterious lines from the woman on the train mean, is veiled. In not announcing her intent behind the story, Plath has opened the door for readers to create and extract meaning on their own terms.
Whatever Plath’s specific images represent, it’s certain that “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” carries a powerful, urgent and ominous message of the importance of autonomy. The voice of college-age Plath is immortalized in Mary Ventura’s and the woman on the train’s, urging readers (and possibly herself) to find their voice, and use it before it’s too late.