As much as Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom bears a whimsical title similar to that of a fantasy bildungsroman, this short story, recently recovered from the Sylvia Plath archives, is anything but. Underneath Plath’s vivid narrative lie dark ideas that foreshadow the author’s first major suicide attempt in 1953, mere months from when she finished writing the story in December of 1952. Upon its completion, during which Plath was a 20 year old student at Smith College, Plath submitted the story to the Mademoiselle magazine where it was rejected and largely forgotten until its official publication last June by Harper Perennial. The story follows a young woman named Mary Ventura and her reluctant journey by train to an indeterminate location referred to as ‘the ninth kingdom’. Shrouding the ninth kingdom is an unsettling aura of mystery – it is both Mary’s final destination and the last station of the train’s travel north – and despite Mary’s various inquiries, the reader remains equally in the dark of what is to await her.
“There are no return trips on this line,’ the woman said softly. ‘Once you get to the ninth kingdom, there is no going back. It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will. It has many names.”
Though the story makes for a one-sitting read, Mary’s allegorical tale requires more than a once-over in order to extract Plath’s views on female independence, fate, and mortality. What strikes me as most interesting is how the story not only ends but begins with a sense of finality: from the moment Mary climbs aboard her train of fate, she crosses an implied point of no return. Mary’s parents dismiss her concerns and assert that “Everyone has to go away sooner or later”, plunging Mary into a seemingly inevitable state of oblivion and compliance. Following this, a secondary character whom is referred to only as “the woman” emerges; unlike Mary, the Woman has taken the train before and is knowledgable in the ‘rules’ which passengers must abide by – one could interpret her as the classic teacher in a bildungsroman, or even Mary’s innermost thoughts, personified. This is emphasized by how Plath’s attentive prose draws a stark contrast between the Woman’s comforting presence and the bleak, sanguine train environment. Plath paints Mary’s surroundings in smoke and blood, a foreboding palette interrupted only by moments of the Woman’s “tenderness” and gentle guidance. The colors orange and red seem to flood Plath’s imagined world; from the plush seats and red ticket stubs that match Mrs. Ventura’s “painted red mouth” to the ominous sun visible from the train window, an “orange color… deepening into red”.
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is, as Plath affirms, a ‘vaguely symbolic tale’ – however, as with any allegorical tale, it’s difficult to ascertain what the ninth kingdom, the train, or Mary’s escape truly represent. Taken optimistically, the train and its oblivious passengers could represent a clockwork lifestyle from which Mary springs free out of sheer will, empowered by a refusal to accept a predestined path. However, interpreted with Plath’s battle with depression and early suicide, the train ride could represent a grappling with the truth of one’s impending doom, with Mary’s escape alluding to choosing premature death instead. With Mary’s premature suicide or train departure comes the ultimate irony – though freedom blooms from the ending’s springtime imagery, Mary is forever shackled with oblivion over her journey’s defining question: “But what is the ninth kingdom?”