Throughout Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, we are faced with Esther Greenwood’s continual downfall as her mind sinks deeper into depression; however, Esther’s one nearly consistent source of enjoyment is found in food. Esther’s experience in New York City is highlighted with rich foods like stuffed avocados and bowls of caviar. Not only do these indulgences serve as an escape for Esther, but food also represents the choices that Esther is presented with in her life. The difference between her choices in life and her choices with food is that when she chooses to eat two plates of chicken and caviar, the stuffed avocados do not disappear from the table. However, once she chooses to marry Buddy Willard, she is no longer able to go to Europe and fall in love. Food offers Esther the ability to make one choice without eliminating others – something that life is not allowing her. This simple fact gives her an escape from the decisions she is being forced to make.At the beginning of Chapter Three, Esther states quite plainly, “I’m not quite sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else” (24). Esther is declaring that food gives her something that nothing else can satisfy, something that satisfies more than just hunger. Although she says that she cannot specifically say what it is she loves so much about food, it is easy to see that food offers her innumerable choices that never cancel each other out; some of them even fulfill a sense of nostalgia. Esther mentions that she can eat as much food as she wants without gaining weight, which just further illustrates the fact that Esther can indulge in anything without having any consequences. The limitless possibilities of food entice Esther and lures her away from the complications and finality of decision making that she is faced with. One of the great metaphors in The Bell Jar is the way that Esther compares her life to a fig tree. “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree from the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose” (77). The image that this brings to the reader is at first a very beautiful one, but then we see Esther wither away in indecision. The fact that her possible futures are “fat purple figs” shows, once again, the importance of food in her life and how it can represent decisions. However, Esther is only allowed to choose one of these beautiful fruits, unlike the bountiful selection she has when choosing what to eat. Shortly after her “vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to the earth,” (78) she was able to eat and consequently felt “immensely better” (78), again proving the comforting qualities that food gives Esther. Ms. Greenwood is essentially using food in an escapist way that comforts her and relieves her otherwise inescapable problems. Not only does food represent all of the choices that she is not able to make, but it also gives her a way to experience some of the things she felt she was missing out on. In particular, when Constantin takes her down to his restaurant that “smelt of herbs and spices and sour cream” (77) she is effectively transported somewhere that she has never been. The restaurant was hidden away in a sort of cellar and the walls were plastered with travel posters that sweep the mind away to far off destinations. Not only does this environment take her away, but the food that follows consoles her to the point that she decides to let Constantin to seduce her (77), something she surely would not have done without the intoxicating environment and comforting food. Avocados are another consoling food for Esther and have a special place in her heart. They bring up memories of her grandfather and her childhood, apparently the only time she remembers being truly happy. “Avocados are my favorite fruit…He [her grandfather] taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison” (28). This section brings the reader back to Esther’s humble childhood especially when she announces that she feels “homesick for that sauce” because you can really feel her yearning. Also, her comparison of the crabmeat to the simple sauce shows that although she relishes the haute couture of New York City living, she will always appreciate the simplicity of her childhood. Doreen’s parting gift to Esther was two-dozen avocados. The fact that Doreen knew of Esther’s affection for these fruits demonstrates how Esther is nearly defined by her strong love of food. These 24 avocados took up all of Esther’s suitcase, leaving room for only The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year, a white plastic sunglasses case and no clothes whatsoever. If we look at Esther’s suitcase as a proportionate metaphor to what she finds most important in her life, food would be considered number one. Esther also seems to have a strange fondness for the avocados in her suitcase since she describes their shifting weight as how “they cannoned from one end to the other with a special little thunder of their own” (113). She seems to almost admire the power of fruit that she is carrying and seems proud to have them. Esther’s emotional ties with food are especially clear when she is evaluating her relationship with avocados.When Esther arrives home after her internship in New York City, she almost immediately finds out that she did not make the course that she had been hoping to take. One of the first things she does after that is “drop a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger, mix it up and [eat] it,” (119) something that seems very strange and quite disgusting. The two ingredients, hamburger and eggs, are American staples and a common find in any kitchen during the fifties. This drastic change from fancy New York dining to domestic cuisine signifies the change that Esther is about to undergo. Also, the fact that both of these ingredients are raw alludes to Esther’s ideology about the current world she is forced to live in. “Raw,” as defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary, is “frank and realistic in the depiction of unpleasant facts or situations,” which is exactly the way Esther sees the world around her. She will not accept the sugarcoated version that society is trying to sell her. Ideas about how the perfect life is getting married and having children do not appeal to Esther and she sees straight through the façade. As Esther continues to fall deeper and deeper into her depressive state, she nearly quits eating altogether. She also stops sleeping and reading, two other very essential things in her life. The absence of her enthusiasm for food shows how far the depression has taken her. Since she no longer indulges herself in food and no longer has any desire to, she is not able to escape from the problems that haunt her. Throughout her whole experiences in three different mental institutions, food is only mentioned once or twice, and it is not in very appealing contexts. During the chaotic dinner scene in one of the institutions, Esther notes “Now I knew perfectly well you didn’t serve two kinds of beans together at a meal. Beans and carrots, or beans and peas, maybe, but never beans and beans. The Negro was just trying to see how much we would take” (181). Her mental note of this shows the reader that she still has some respect for food and knows the proper taboos that surround them. Food has not completely left her consciousness. However, Esther is being exposed to food that she describes as “stiff, green straws [green beans]” (181) or “stone cold and stuck together in a gluey paste [macaroni]” (181) which is not the creamy avocados she is used to. The low quality food served at the institutions offers her no escape and does not present any desirable options for her.One of her first experiences out of the institutions is her date with Irwin where she drinks beer and devours escargot. “I picked up my empty snail shell and drank the herb-green juice. I had no idea if this was proper, but after months of wholesome, dull asylum diet, I was greedy for butter” (227). This dinner, combined with Esther’s newfound freedom and confidence in contraception, quickly leads to sex with Irwin. Although it is a much less exciting and far messier experience than Esther intended it to be, it shows that food not only gives Esther comfort, but also gives her poise and confidence. The revitalizing effects that food has on Esther are undeniable and are clearly seen throughout The Bell Jar. Not only does food offer Esther an escape to a different time or place, but it also gives her a variety of options to choose from and the best part is that she can choose more than just one. Food commonly brings up emotions for many people, not just Esther. Especially in American society, food is glorified and seen as a solution to many people’s everyday problems. Esther is not alone in seeking out food to resolve her daily issues and it is a much healthier outlet than alcohol or other substances. Food, however, does not prevent Esther’s depression from spiraling out of control – once it hits, her appetite is gone. It is only when the bell jar is suspended a few feet above her head (215) she is able to take pleasure in the comforts that food offers her. It is impossible to know whether food will be able to sustain her mind if the bell jar descends once more and she is forced to actually face the decisions she has been avoiding in her life.
Throughout Sylvia Plath’s depiction of depression in her novel The Bell Jar, even the minutest detail plays a significant role in the development of the main character Esther’s mental breakdown. The most obvious manifestation of Esther’s detachment from reality is her progressive inability to fully grasp what society defines as acceptable social behavior. As a result of this difficulty with accepting the true reality of her surroundings, the main character derives her own version of truth from her interpretations of social interaction as well as descriptions of her increasingly oppressive surroundings. Although Esther’s mental struggle with embodying societal norms can be more obviously glimpsed through her relationships with characters such as Joan and Buddy, the tensions between true reality and that which Esther creates are most effectively and indistinctly depicted through Plath’s use of color imagery. Within The Bell Jar, images of dull or even white color are employed to signify the psychological void or abnormality within a particular thought or interaction, while brightly colored images serve both to contrast with her former depression as well as to highlight the main character’s possibly artificial progression toward what society deems to be the mental ideal. One of the first manifestations of this dichotomy of brightly colored and dull images occurs during Esther’s reading of the book sent by the staff of Ladies’ Day. Following a story about a fig tree and an interaction between a Jewish man and a Catholic kitchen maid, Esther asserts that she “…thought it was a lovely story, especially the part about the fig tree in the winter under the snow and then the fig tree in the spring with all the green fruit,” and that she “…wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl under a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig tree” (55). Despite the fact that one of the prime elements of this short story seems to be the social tension between the two characters of different belief systems, Esther is instead drawn to the images of either void or growth that are represented through the colors of white and green, respectively. The main character does not focus on the social elements of the story, but rather selects a certain image and extracts it to describe both her mental state as it is and also as how she wishes it to be. It seems that the snow covering the tree in winter in tandem with its bearing of fruit in spring could be connected to a transition between a dormant, seemingly useless state of being to one of productivity. In Esther’s taking care to clearly demonstrate the difference between the two states in terms of color, the reader is able to gain insight into the main character’s increasing mental oppression. Her desire to “crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl under a fence” seems to suggest her desire to escape from emotional emptiness, represented both by the oppressive black lines of print and the void between them, into a more fruitful environment in which she is better able to connect with normality. As the novel continues to develop, additional color imagery is employed as Esther attempts to venture into what she deems to be a customary progression toward young adulthood through a series of sexual experiences. The first of these purely negative encounters is her interaction with Marco. Upon meeting him, Esther takes note of his “dazzling white suit,” which, in this employment of white imagery of a void, seems to foreshadow the abnormality of the following interaction (107). Despite the fact that Esther realizes that Marco is a misogynist and is aware of his domineering nature, she contemplates losing her virginity to him in an effort to reverse her depression, stating that “It’s happening…It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen” (109). At this point in the interaction, it is crucial to state that, in an effort to obtain normality, Esther is left rather void of emotion and ultimately reacts in the manner which is expected of her solely for the reason that she believes this reaction is normal. Despite the fact that the above quotation displays a passive attitude toward the attempted rape, Esther rather suddenly reacts as she details that “…[she] fisted her fingers together and smashed them at his nose,” and that, “Marco pulled out a white handkerchief and dabbed his nose. Blackness, like ink, spread over the pale cloth” (109). The color imagery of white and blackness is primarily employed in order to convey that, unlike the brightly colored image of the spring fig tree, Esther’s thought of losing her virginity to Marco is abnormal and unacceptable due to the way he has treated her. Upon her punching Marco in the nose, the color images are described as a dark, colorless stain spreading across a white cloth, representing a void being penetrated by negativity. Parallel to the image of the snow-covered fig tree, the use of color in this scene displays Esther’s mental decline as well as her inability to display the correct reaction to negative behavior for a reason other than a desire to follow what she considers to be the natural progression of adolescence. The tension between Esther’s personal perspective upon her surroundings and how they truly exist is also represented through color imagery during her suicide attempt. Upon her rescue, Esther states that “[She] felt the darkness, but nothing else, and [her] head rose, feeling it, like the head of a worm…The silence surged back, smoothing itself as black water smoothes to its old surface calm over a dropped stone” (170). During this incidence of the most desperate manifestation of Esther’s depression, the image of impenetrable blackness suggests that, despite her half-hearted attempts to adhere to the expectations of young adulthood, she has become hopeless and has fully entered an ideal world of her own, one that is free of consciousness. In the following pages, however, the promise of normality soon attempts to penetrate Esther’s mentally suspended existence as she expresses that “A chisel cracked down on my eye, and a slit of light opened, like a mouth or a wound, till the darkness clamped shut on it again.” A few moments after this first appearance of light, another beam “…leapt into [her] head, and through the thick, warm, furry dark, a voice cried” (170). Through these quotations, it is evident that the main character feels comfortable in this new world that she has created for herself, but reality still is able to spontaneously infiltrate her damaged mental state. The dichotomy of color in this case, simply expressed as darkness and light, suggests the possibility of her emerging from her depression and ultimately being able to connect with reality through the normalcy of social experiences. Ultimately, however, additional color imagery paralleling her sexual encounter with Marco suggests the difficulty of this transition. Further employing this negotiation between true and perceived reality through images of darkness sporadically penetrated by light, Esther has a similar experience to her attempted suicide during electro shock therapy. Despite the fact that the treatment occurs after her suicide, Esther also begins the scene in silence and darkness that is interrupted by color flashes meant to represent an attempt to fully connect to normal society. As Esther receives the treatment, she shuts her eyes and there is “…a brief silence like indrawn breath.” She then describes that the machine “…shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed [her] till [she] thought [her] bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant” (143). Much like the light that penetrates the darkness of Esther’s attempted suicide, flashes of colored light enter the darkness during electroshock therapy, though this time a color is specified. The colored light penetrating darkness seems to represent the difficulty and discomfort associated with combining these two psychological states as well as the required intensity to successfully negotiate between Esther’s consciousness and that which others are attempting to instill in her. Due to the fact that, in both the treatment and the suicide attempt, the color imagery is not consistent, the transition to normality manifests itself in different, ineffective ways and Esther’s depression is still able to dominate her impression of her surroundings. Following these instances of interaction between normalcy and abnormality through color imagery, Esther again describes of her exploration of personal sexuality and social normality in these same terms. In her losing her virginity to an academic named Irwin, Esther expresses her newly acquired feelings of belonging. …the stories of blood-stained bridal sheets and capsules of red ink bestowed on already deflowered brides floated back to me…it occurred to me that the blood was my answer. I couldn’t possibly be a virgin anymore. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition. (229) In addition to the main character’s clear acknowledgment of the fact that she is now part of a sort of sisterhood which includes all normal women, this assertion is also emphasized through her mention of the vibrant color of red ink. Following this passage, it seems that, unlike the blood expelled during Esther’s encounter with Marco, the blood involved here will be brightly colored, signifying an entrance into the normal world. The converse image of her smiling into the dark, however, which is reminiscent of her suicide attempt, foreshadows the negative events that are to follow. When Esther looks at the blood and communicates that “when [she] held [her] hand up to the light streaming in from the bathroom, [her] fingertips looked black,” and later details her application of “…a fresh section of white towel” (229), the possibility of her normal entrance into her image of ideal femininity is immediately refuted. Much like the image of blood earlier described during her violent encounter with Marco, as well as the white color of his suit, the colors black and white play a significant role in relating the abnormality of the interaction. Despite the fact that Esther believes that all of her mental separation from normal society will be alleviated after losing her virginity, the color imagery used here seems to suggest a failure in this regard because of the towel as a representation of a void penetrated by seemingly black blood which seems to symbolize a colorless and empty interaction. Ultimately, though an opportunity for normalcy is presented through this encounter, the color imagery involved suggests that it is rather an unpleasant experience that negatively impacts her mental recovery. Despite the fact that Esther frequently struggles with negotiating between her desire for normalcy and the limitations of her depression, she seems to be able to overcome this difficulty, at least externally, prior to her interview with the doctors at Belsize. As she waits outside the boardroom door, she scrutinizes her clothing for any signs of mental weakness by stating that “[Her] stocking seams were straight, [her] black shoes cracked but polished, and [her] red wool suit flamboyant as [her] plans. Something old, something new…” (244). In contrast to the blood that should have appeared red during her attempts at sexual normality, the red wool suit depicted here represented a brightness that has never before been achieved during Esther’s mental struggle. In this case, the bright color of the suit symbolizes her ability to mentally adapt to what society will expect of her upon her entering it, as well as her ability to acquire “something new” in her personality that allows for social success. Another aspect of this quotation, however, seems to negate this possibility for triumph over her former depression, namely her cracked but polished black shoes. In other passages including black color imagery, Esther is faced with a potentially destructive social challenge that forces her to struggle with different interpretations of her surrounding. The presence of these cracked but shined shoes, especially taking into account their color, seems to suggest that, despite the fact that Esther adopts a colorful exterior, there are still aspects that have yet to recover and may return to their former, unpolished state at the slightest provocation. The portion of the quotation that states “something old, something new,” then, seems to present a final critique upon the negotiation between the mental and actual worlds in that, no matter the brightness of possibility, the potential for regression constantly threatens under a polished veneer. Despite the fact that Esther explicitly expresses this fear of a future struggle with abnormality, the color imagery in this scene, when considered with its interaction with its past manifestations, makes this argument all the more clear. Although there are different levels of both color and darkness included in each of the scenes mentioned above, the dominance of either one or the other seems to directly correspond to Esther’s progress in approaching mental normality. In subtly using this imagery throughout several pivotal scenes in the novel, Plath is able to depict the true nature of mental illness more effectively. Despite the fact that the reader can most easily perceive the main character’s level of depression from the major events and relationships in the novel, a less obvious, private aspect of Esther’s depression is displayed through contrasting dark and light color imagery. This tactic seems to suggest that, in addition to the tangible aspects of depression, there are also less apparent, but equally relevant emotions that can be glimpsed only with more careful scrutiny. The nature of mental illness, then, is less defined by large, obvious indicators of depression and more so by the intricacies that often escape human attention.
It is important to acknowledge that the past and the present can coexist in a single work to remarkable effect. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior”, memories are so closely associated with the present and with legends that it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from fiction; indeed, the subtitle of Kingston’s work is “Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts”, implying that the author did not intend for one to make such distinctions. Kingston does this in order to suspend the reader’s disbelief just long enough to supply credibility to her own thoughts. In the poetry of Sylvia Plath, however, the past and the present commingle with a far less overt purpose. Although readers do not doubt Plath’s thoughts, they may question her motives. Some of her poetry is written in the present tense, some takes place in the past, and still others jump from one tense to the other. Though it may appear that Kingston’s and Plath’s dramatically different writing styles command equally opposing results, their usage of memory to explain present events is strikingly similar. In both Kingston’s and Plath’s work, memories integrated with present events help to bridge the gap two different ways of life, urging readers to consider whether or not the two ways can coexist.In “Woman Warrior”, Kingston begins most chapters with a memory of her mother telling a story. The chapter begins by flashing back to the past, but by following the story, we are brought to the present day. Through this simple formula, the reader is able to connect the Chinese way of life and the American way of life that the author spent her entire childhood attempting to reconcile. For example, Kingston tells the Chinese legend of how white crane boxing was invented by a woman who was taught by the spirit of the crane. This precedes the tale of a girl living in the mountains (told in first person narrative, as a memory), where she is taught to be a woman warrior. Kingston finishes off this chapter by offering memories of the years she spent at Berkeley during the Vietnam conflict. While the movement from one tale to the next appears deceptively simple, the transition that Kingston is in fact trying to relate is far more strenuous: the movement from the traditional Chinese culture to the more modern perspective of the Chinese-American. Kingston also utilizes memory to inform the reader of the stark differences between the Chinese and the American ways of life. Rather than simply inserting tidbits of Chinese culture into the narrative, she uses talk-stories and memories to reveal the contrasts. In the story of Brave Orchid and her sister Moon Orchid, one sister talks to another about her husband’s second wife’s sons: “He’s got two sons. You have two sons. You take them away from her. You become their mother” (Kingston 125). The assumption that one can take another’s children is offset several pages later when the attempt is half-heartedly made. The result is insanity – Kingston is subtly conveying to the reader the difficulty of abruptly meshing two disparate cultures. The transition takes place over the course of her entire girlhood. There are a great many places in “Woman Warrior” where Kingston uses this method to educate the reader about traditional Chinese culture; in fact, the contrast between Chinese culture and American culture is found in every story and every memory. Plath’s transition is a bit more complicated. She struggles to come to terms with many issues; among them, how to live following the death of her father. Many of her poems deal with this struggle: “Electra on Azalea Path”, for example, reveals how she felt when her father died, how she coped with the aftermath, and how she continues to live with the effects of his passing. The complexity is remarkable, as she combines tenses and mingles memories throughout the work:Another kind of redness bothers me:The day your slack sail drank my sister’s breathThe flat see purpled like that evil clothMy mother unrolled at your last homecoming (Plath 75).Plath begins with the present tense, noting what bothers her now, and flashes back to the event that caused this discomfort. Within that memory of her father’s “sail” and her sister, she incorporates another memory, this one of her mother; it is clear that many elements of her past play a role in how she feels at present. It is, in fact, this very complexity that allows for such in-depth understanding. Because she is able to reflect upon her memories, Plath gains deeper insight into what plagues her. In her poem “Daddy,” Plath recalls numerous moments with her father, and how she attempted to “get back, back, back to [him]” (Plath 193), after his death through her own suicide. Now, in the throes of her negative memories, she realizes that she is ready to move on with her life; indeed, that she can. It appears as if only now can she come to grips with her past; years after his death, she is finally able to say, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Plath 194). Kingston uses memory to relay to the reader how she passed from the traditional Chinese way of life to the Chinese-American way of life, and Plath uses memory for a similar purpose: to pass from a harmful childhood spent dealing with “daddy” into the present, where she is finally able to move on. An important reason for the use of memory in a text is to reveal how what has happened in the past molds who one is in the present. Plath does an excellent job of conveying this idea in the poem “The Disquieting Muses”. In this wonderfully descriptive poem, Plath accuses her mother of not protecting her sanity as a child by speaking of three ladies that have followed her from infancy, hovering to the left of her crib. She recalls bedtime stories that were of no comfort, chanting, and Ovaltine that was not strong enough to keep the three eerie ladies at bay. She remembers when the three “aunts” began to replace her mother’s maternal duties; they taught her to dance, and to play the piano as they did, woodenly and emptily. “I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere, / From muses unhired by you, dear mother” (Plath 55). At the conclusion of the poem, set in the present, Plath has become one of them: faceless, unable even to frown to show her presence. While the idea is simple, the effect of memory is imperative to the theme of both Plath’s work and Kingston’s. Kingston’s entire text, in fact, is a collection of memories that explain to the reader how she has become her present-day self. It is a compilation of remembered events, legends, talk-stories, people, and dreams; when the narrator’s mother cuts her frenum (Kingston 164), it changes who she will become. When she screams at her schoolmate for being silent and gets sick for the following eighteen months (Kingston 176), it alters her future. In reflecting on these memories, Kingston enables the reader to see how she has been shaped and changed by each past event, just as Plath was.Another integral reason for the use of memory in each woman’s work is to create a sense of carefully-constructed chaos. Kingston jumps from memory to story, from present to past: at some times we are outsiders, hearing the story through the author’s mother, at other times we hear the author’s own words, and at still other times we witness the author living out her own stories and legends, such as in the case of the warrior woman. This chaotic effect is important because Kingston herself felt a sense of identity confusion while growing up. She was unsure of whether she was or wanted to be either Chinese or Chinese-American. In elementary school, she told her teacher that “‘We Chinese can’t sing “land where our fathers died.”‘ She argued with me about politics, while I meant because of curses” (Kingston 167). The conflict between the two cultures was so strong that Kingston often felt unsure of what to do. She wanted to be American-pretty as a child, but opted for Chinese-sisterly because it was easier. By scattering about the memories within the reality and dispersing the fiction, Kingston cleverly helps the reader to understand the confusion she felt while growing up. Plath felt a similar identity confusion. She questioned who she was on the outside, who she was on the inside, and who she saw in herself. The poem “Mirror” reflects how Plath views self-image: in a mirror, which can tell no lies, there has “drowned a young girl. . .an old woman / Rises” (Plath 122). Plath conveys our reliance on mirrors, and the resultant reliance on self-image. Here, the self-image directly influences how one acts. The woman looking into the mirror responds with “tears and an agitation of hands” (Plath 122). This poem is written in the present tense; there are no memories interfering with how she feels at that moment. In her poem “In Plaster” Plath is similarly conflicted; “There are two of me now: / This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one” (Plath 110). She begins the poem by remembering the arrival of the newer version of herself, and how she could not understand it, but grew to patronize it and even like it. When the newer version began to take over, Plath becomes contemptible, but still cannot control it. She says that she “still depended on her, though [she] did it regretfully” (Plath 112). Both Kingston and Plath eventually come to grips with their identities – perhaps not with who they are, but with who they want to become. Plath writes determinedly about the new, white, controlling version of herself. “I’m collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her, / And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me” (Plath 112). She realizes that she wants to be who she was, the colorful one that is now hidden by plaster. Likewise, Kingston announces at the end of her text what she has set out to become. She bursts into dinner one evening and shouts at her parents, the controlling factors in her life: “Not everybody thinks I’m nothing. I am not going to be a slave or a wife. Even if I am stupid and talk funny and get sick, I won’t let you turn me into a slave or a wife. I’m getting out of here” (Kingston 201). Both women are resolute in their decisions, and each of them has made their way to this resoluteness by wading through a river of troubled memories.Memory plays an imperative role in both Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. In both works, memory serves to bridge gaps between important life transitions, show changes in the writers’ personalities, and portray the emotions of the writers through their placement. These works are fraught with the past, and colored by the authors’ interpretations of past events. They are filled with the memories of lessons taught and lessons learned, of what was expected and what was received. It is the placement of these memories in the texts that make the works so crisp and so revealing to the reader.
A psychoanalytic reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar presents a wealth of analyzable material. This novel immediately came to mind as an example of Lacan’s theory of the “mirror stage.” Plath constructed this novel about a young woman’s inability to form an identity separate from the false ones reflected back to her, her consequent psychic breakdown and her use of doubles or “mirror images” to recover/discover herself using, what seems to be, Lacanian principles. The novel also penetrates the very Freudian ream of child/parent relationships and employs symbolism that both evokes psychological issues and comments on psychoanalysis itself.Lacan’s stages of development lead up to the development of the structural possibility of the “I.” Esther Greenwood, the novel’s protagonist, is locked in that very struggle. Lacan theorized that the infant starts out not realizing that he/she is separate from the mother and that in order to realize his/her individuality, the infant must separate from the mother. This traumatic act creates both a feeling of loss and the need to recapture that sense of wholeness that he/she experienced before the psychic break. This is accomplished by discovering what the “self” is now that the existence of the “other” has been established. The “mirror stage” involves the recognition of a misrepresentation as the “self”—the image of oneself that is seen in the mirror mistakenly as an “other.” This false self evolves into the “ideal ego” and becomes what the individual strives to recover. Plath captures the essence of the “mirror image” in the following passage….I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father, and the person you thought was your father all your life is a sham.Of course, the person “hanging around” the door is the self that Esther has yet to discover. The false self, the sham, is the image of her self that she thought was her own, the “ideal ego” that continually evades her.The beginning of the novel finds Esther actively trying to identify what her “ideal ego” is. Her difficulty lies in the number of “mirrors” in which she sees herself reflected in. She comes to New York and her guest editorship with a number of (warped) mirrors already in place. There is the traditional academic image of herself, reflected by the women professors at her college, and the successful novel writer in the mirror held by her benefactor, Philomenia Guinea. All of these women, according to Esther, wanted to “adopt [her] in some way, and…have [her] resemble them (180). In New York, Esther is faced with the high professional mirrored standard of the fashion magazine editor, Jay Cee, and goes so far as to imagine herself as “Ee Gee, the famous editor” (32). Additionally, there are the contrasting selves reflected in the kind and sweet mirror of Betsy, a fellow guest editor from Kansas, and the cynical, carefree reflection offered by Doreen. Her conflict with these two contrasting roles is exhibited as indecision as to with whom her loyalties lie—although Doreen possesses “a secret voice speaking straight out of [Esther’s] bones” (6), Esther later decides that it is Betsy she “resembled at heart” (19). These many mirrors only serve to further distance Esther from the recognition of her “I.” In the end, she rejects and breaks all of these mirrors in the act of throwing her new clothes, which symbolize the different “selves” she’s collected, off of the roof of her hotel on the last night of her stay.Without a single mirror in place, Esther fully begins to participate in her psychic breakdown. Essentially, she is “self”-less. Lacan felt that the inability to say “I,” to be selfless in a way that does not allow one to become the speaking subject of a sentence, leads to instability and a distancing of oneself from the center of the Symbolic, a phase that is akin to Freud’s Genital stage and full adulthood. Accordingly, Esther moves back into her Mother’s home, to suffocate under the “motherly breath of the suburbs” (60). By the end of the summer she is placed in a psychiatric hospital following her attempted suicide.It is in the hospital that the re-emergence of the “mirror image” or double occurs in the form of Joan Gilling. She is Esther’s mirror image in a number of ways—they attended the same college, dated the same boy and Joan had even tried to kill herself after reading about Esther’s attempted suicide. In looking to Joan to be her new “double,” Esther rejects the image(s) of herself that she held before. When the women on the ward find a picture of Esther in the new issue of the fashion magazine she had spent the summer editing, she denies being the subject of the photograph—“No, it’s not me…it’s somebody else” (170). Incidentally, she describes the scene in the picture twice in the novel, first, when it was actually taking place and then again from inside the hospital. These descriptions serve as a distorted mirror image of the event—rather than glamorous, as it seemed at the time, it now seems empty and depressing.When Joan is admitted to the same hospital as Esther, the opportunity for her to act as Esther’s definitive double is realized. Joan progresses rapidly through the “progressive” levels of the hospital, succeeding much in the same way that Esther had once in college. She sees Joan as “the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me” (167).Eventually Esther begins to make a break from the mirror image of Joan. She sees her as a negative image of herself, “a wry, black image,” that must be rejected (179). In order to be cured, one must enter the Symbolic realm of Lacanian theory where one realizes the structural possibility of the “I” and recognizes the concept of the Other. For this to happen, one must recognize that the other is not the “I.” The impetus for this break is Esther’s discovery that Joan is a lesbian. By making Joan lesbian, the text suggests that she does not get past the mirror stage. Rather than seeking out the other (sex) in romance, Joan stays within the realm of her own image—another woman. The negative consequence of not passing through this stage is symbolically represented by Joan’s suicide. Joan’s death also plays an important role for Esther. With her mirror image destroyed her heart now beats, “I am, I am, I am” (199). She is finally successful in discovering her self; she is cured.The relationship between Esther and her mother exemplifies some themes of Freud’s work. Esther’s father dies early in her life, a loss that is accompanied by the complete lack of mourning by her mother. She blames her mother for the lack of a father, as he is not even present as an object of mourning, and grows to hate her. This is seen as a positive step as Esther’s psychiatrist smiles “at [her] as if something had pleased her very, very much” when Esther admits that she hates her mother in therapy (166). Freud would see this as a progression from one stage of development to another. In an attempt to align herself with her father, and against her mother, she tries to get back to him in a number of ways. She lies to a subway conductor, saying that her father is in prison and that she is looking for a way to get there. She goes to his grave with the intention of making up for years of neglect and to “take on a mourning my mother never bothered with” (135). Her attempted suicide can be seen as a final attempt to join her father. Without her mother in her life (as Esther’s mother fades from the narrative as Esther is admitted in the hospital) she continues to get well and is eventually cured.Throughout the novel, Plath uses symbolism that both evokes psychological issues and comments on psychoanalysis itself. Lacan says that language is always about loss or absence; words are not needed when you have what you need. Esther’s desire to become an author, to have a career that is focused on language, can be seen as an attempt to deal with the loss in her life, specifically that of her father. A critique of Freud is also evident in the novel. While Joan is enthusiastic about her discussion of “Egos and Ids” with her psychiatrist, this kind of talk leaves Esther cold (183). Esther hated the shrinking of concepts into symbols, as in her chemistry class, where “perfectly good words like gold and silver…were shrunk into ugly abbreviations (29). Freud’s shrinking of elements of the human mind into such symbolic elements as the ego and the id is equally distasteful to her. Plath demonstrates the eventual failure of psychoanalysis in having Joan take her own life.The application of Lacan’s theories to the text provides an additional gauge with which Esther’s progress can be measured. Her cure is inevitable in the context of Lacanian theory while her early attempts to discover her “self” and the fate of Joan Gilling demonstrate the consequences of failing to resolve the conflicts of each phase.Works CitedPlath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.
Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar (1963), is conspicuously autobiographical. The story follows the fictional character, Esther Greenwood, during her summer spent in New York City working for a prestigious fashion magazine and back in Massachusetts struggling with her severe depression at home, and the months spent in a mental institution. It is obvious that the materials of the book are derived from the life of young Plath herself. Upon return from a strenuous stay in New York City where she had been a guest editor at the Mademoiselle Magazine, Plath almost succeeded in killing herself with sleeping pills, which led her to a difficult period of recovery involving electroconvulsive shock treatment and psychotherapy. However, apart from being a record of the writer’s traumatic experiences in her own life, the book also gives a vivid account of the heroine’s dilemma as woman living in the American 1950s, when heterosexuality was highly predominant as the social norm. In other words, Plath’s novel is not only a female writer’s autobiography but also a text which offers one part of the American sexual politics’ genealogy. My aim in what follows, then, is to read The Bell Jar in its social-historical context. Before examining the novel, a few general remarks about female life in the American 1950s seem appropriate. During the World War II, when munitions industries were suffering from the shortage of hands, a great deal of American women were urged to help their country with its military jobs. But no sooner had men come back from the front than they drove away women from the labor market. Accordingly, women had to submit to becoming housewives. The result was that “the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20 . . .” by the end of the decade after the war and “girls went to college to get a husband” (Friedan 16). Of course, there existed women who were discontented with such status as housewives. Yet the political repression of the McCarthy era did not allow them to hanker for individual rights nor to organize an independent network which would secure woman’s work place in the civil society. In the name of protecting the nation from communist infiltration, the federal government manipulated their people to embrace social conformity, and so far as women were concerned, they went back home so as to retain their family members’ happiness. Turning now to The Bell Jar, we can easily perceive that the author, Sylvia Plath, too, was one of those American women whose mentality was nurtured in the 1950s. Her alter ego, Esther Greenwood, feels in New York City that she is in danger of being seduced by nonheterosexual relationships which are apparently a taboo for a woman who is waiting for the right person as her life’s partner. To give an example, Esther is dissatisfied with the Amazon Hotel where she shared her New York adventures with other eleven student editors. She regards a proper hotel as a place “where there are both men and women mixed about here and there on the same floor”; that only the twelve girls are put into “the same wing on the same floor in single rooms” (4) means to Esther that they are cut off from the heterosexual world. Also, Doreen from “a society girls’ college down South,” Esther confesses, becomes “one of [her] troubles” (4) since Doreen has a great charm for both man and woman. That the Southern girl has “an amused and mysterious sneer, as if all the people around her were pretty silly” (5) denotes the fact that she embodies the legend of the Southern belle. In order to sustain the once-flourished agricultural Southern society founded on the basis of noblesse oblige, the women living in the male-dominated traditional community are required to be cultivated and attractive in appearance but to be obedient and chaste enough at the same time. To sum up, Doreen’s odd “sneer” symbolizes the double standard forced on the Southern belle who sacrifices herself to gratify the Southern ideal of perfect womanhood. Because she is in company with Doreen “wearing a strapless white lace dress zipped up over a snug corset affair that curved her in at the middle and bulged her out again spectacularly above and below” (8), Esther can have a drink with such a well-known disc jockey as Lenny Shepherd; besides, Esther herself is attracted to the female friend “like a magnet” owing to “a whole life of marvellous, elaborate decadence” (5) Doreen displays. The double standard existing within Doreen makes it possible to captivate both Lenny and Esther; the latter, needless to say, is allured by the refined part lurking in the bottom of the Southern belle’s heart. Hence to defend herself from the “trouble,” namely, not to be involved with the Southern belle too much, Esther defiantly rejects helping Doreen who groans in her drunkenness:I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped her on to my bed I would never get rid of her again. . . . I decided the only thing to do was to dump her on the carpet and shut and lock my door and go back to bed. (23)Here, Esther, who is too conscious of her heterosexual habitude, tries not to ruin herself by a close relationship to a female friend, that is, by nonheterosexuality. The attitude towards the Amazon Hotel and Doreen which Esther projects in this manner is the author’s, too. Plath felt uneasy about being unmarried: to remain single meant a nonheterosexual tendency in the American 1950s common sense. Both her journals and letters in her single days disclose her tremendous concern about dating, boyfriends, and future marriage. And one scene from The Bell Jar serves as an evidence of this obsession with becoming a desirable woman. Plath’s alter ego mentions the impact a Yale student’s invitation letter to a Prom gives upon her and the other female students around her:After Buddy had gone I opened the letter. It was a letter inviting me to the Yale Junior Prom. . . . I found myself hugging the senior on watch.When she heard I was going to the Yale Junior Prom she treated me with amazement and respect. . . . The seniors on my floor started speaking to me. . . . (62-3)In the heterosexual world which moves around men like Buddy Willard, female students’ status in dormitories is eventually dependent on whether they are going out with some nice guy. Their own academic or personal abilities are never valued after all. To be paired mattered a great deal to young women.In actuality, when she married a toward-be-ideal-partner, Ted Hughes, Plath triumphantly began having a sharp tongue. One of her poems written in the year of her marriage describes a single woman:. . . . Turned bitterAnd sallow as any lemon,The other [i.e. a single woman], wry virgin to the last, Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,Worm-husbanded, yet no woman. (“Two Sisters of Persephone”)From a heterosexual viewpoint which occupied Plath’s mind, to get marriedand in consequence, to bear a childwas the ultimate purpose of being female; an unmarried woman was no more than the scum of society. Yet what is to the point is that young Plath, who was extraordinarily talented in writing and therefore ambitious of fame, was also doubtful of the norm prevalent in her age. To put it another way, she was torn between her desires of becoming an ordinary housewife and winning fame as a writer. The way she represents the execution of the Rosenbergs in the opening section of The Bell Jar is helpful to understand this point:It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. . . . The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papersgoggled-eyed headlines staring up at me on every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. (1)Esther knows very well that there is no relation between her and the couple executed for espionage in Sing Sing prison’s electric chair. Just the same, Esther is obsessed by the news about the RosenbergsÅCwherein we find the author’s tremendous interest in the Rosenbergs’ death. Also in the only journal written down during her stay in New York City, the news of the young married couple’s execution calls Plath’s attention. It is important to investigate the reason why Plath was so intrigued by the news.The key to examine the question lies behind the procedure of the Rosenbergs Trail, especially, the one of Ethel Rosenberg. Ethel, unlike her husband, Julius, was executed not only for espionage but for her inadequacy as mother. The minor details about the trial itself is unnecessary in this study, but explicitly, the U. S. government sentenced her death because she failed in achieving the female role as a mother.Ethel Rosenberg was originally arrested as a means to make her husband, Julius, open his mouth on his connection to the espionage work for the Soviet Union of which the U. S. government was convinced. The then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, “urged his Bureau employees to aggressively attempt to build a triable case against Ethel,” going on to say “if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals . . . proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter” (Radosh and Milton 99). However, in the case of Julius with an unyielding will, his wife’s threatened prosecution unexpectedly strengthened his determination not to cooperate with the FBI: the “lever” did not work. As a result, the authorities were obliged to commit themselves to prosecute Ethel as an accomplice in the espionage conspiracy, and to dodge public reproach against such an inhuman conclusion prepared for a young mother, they had to frame up a story that Ethel was a bad mother. In the 1950s, as mentioned earlier, the pressure on women to marry and raise children was paramount: many young women abandoned their careers or studies one after another to perform their stereotyped sex-role. Ethel Rosenberg, who got married when she was twenty-four, was a proper woman from the 1950s point of view. Still, the problem was that she was greatly active in political causes and thereby she was regarded negligent in raising children. After finishing school, she worked at a shipping company for four years until she quit the job to become an organizer of a strike of women workers; she joined the Young Communist League; and she eventually became a member of the American Communist Party. Though she gave up participating political activities after her marriage owing to her physical weakness, her activism during her single life constructed her image as a deviant woman. One of the juries who insisted her guiltiness condemned Ethel from the 1950s ideology concerning sexual politics: “I had two daughters at the time, and it bothered me how they would subject their children to such a thing. I just couldn’t understand it” (qtd. in Brennan 59). S/he completely believed the accused, Ethel, to be a bad mother, controlled by the demagogic image the authorities made up. And of the final judgement by Judge Irving Kaufman, the same may be said. He proclaimed at the court: “Love for their [Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s] cause dominated their livesit was even greater than their love for their children” (Nizer 367). Ethel was electrocuted as she failed in furnishing her children with a good home. Evidently, the image of Ethel as a bad mother did work “as a lever” to persuade the public to believe that she deserved death. Now it is evident that Plath found her double in Ethel Rosenberg, because of which she was glued to the news to such an extent that “she [was] sick at the stomach” (Journals 82). Being single at that time, Plath had been quite anxious if she would be able to find a befitting mate to marry and to have a child. Though a widow, her mother, whom Plath followed as a reasonable female role model, had successfully married her professor and had two excellent children. And Plath’s hometown seemed to have a woman who became the model for Mrs Willard (the mother of Esther’s boyfriend) in the novel, and she had also married her professor, raised superior children, and even owned her own sexual policy: “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from” (74). Surrounded by these older women, who were typically successful women from the viewpoint of the sexual politics in the American 1950s, Plath must have been upset, or felt herself deficient as a woman.Under such conditions, a woman, who had already been married but was presumed to have failed in caring for her children, was killed. It is plausible that Plath’s apprehensions for future as woman increased suddenly. Furthermore, despite the differences in their background, both Ethel Rosenberg and Sylvia Plath were similar to each other on the point that they were being true to their respective goal in their life: the former committed herself to political causes, and the latter, to the writing. Having sacrificed her family life for her own interest, according to the authorities, Ethel Rosenberg was to be electrocuted. The likeness between the two readily frightened young Plath. If she had chosen marriage, she would not be able to live a family life which would satisfy the norm the American society expected of her; if she had chosen to become a writer or to become both a writer and a mother, the choices signified extinction, namely, death, in the 1950s American ideology as the Rosenberg case had shown. Accordingly, Plath was farther perplexed if she should choose to marry or to become a writer, and inevitably began to feel there was no way out. And various ambitions young Plath had imagined rapidly tumbled down in New York City once she witnessed through mass media a capital punishment passed on to Ethel Rosenberg, a bad mother.Plath’s double in the novel, Esther, delineates the sign of emotional changes in her by using the metaphor of figs:From the top of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet . . . and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. (80)”A central image of the book, the fig tree bearing ripe figs,” to quote Wagner-Martin, “depicts the female dilemma of the 1950s” (185). It may well be that “the dilemma” which has been enclosed within Esther/Plath is revealed by the death of Ethel Rosenberg.Needless to say, not every woman felt in a similar way as Esther/Plath did. There was a young woman like Hilda, who is one of the twelve guest editors in The Bell Jar. Esther and Hilda exchanges words on the Rosenbergs’ death which end in a cross-purposed misunderstanding:. . . I said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?’The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night. ‘Yes!’ Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart. It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomb-like morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.’It’s awful such people should be alive.’ (105)To apprehend Hilda’s statement as a mere political declaration would be quite superficial. For the issue brought up in this passage includes more than a simply political one. As her way of moving “like a mannequin” (104) implies, Hilda is totally passive in doing anything. It is inconceivable for her to doubt the ideas flooding around her. The government says the Rosenbergs are spies who tried to put the U. S. trouble; so Hilda is “so glad they’re going to die” (104). The episode of Ethel Rosenberg’s failure in raising her children also has the backing of the American public; so Hilda also adapts herself to the major way of thinking. Unlike Esther/Plath, Hilda never troubles herself by associating herself with a strange condemned criminal. While Hilda, who seems to be too simpleminded, successfully adjust herself to the 1950s American code with regard to the sexual politics, an educated woman like Esther/Plath is doomed to self-destruction. Thus, in the American society in the 1950s which regarded heterosexuality as natural, Esther/Plath gradually lost herself. One of the letters to Plath’s mother from New York City suggests her affliction: “. . . Life happens so hard and fast I sometimes wonder who is me . . .” (Letters Home 116). Wavering between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality, Esther/Plath was deeply distressed when arriving home in Massachusetts; the agony of choices between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality continues after the summer, too. Failing in killing herself at home, the author’s alter ego, Esther, is first sent to a local hospital and next to a private one. It is in that private hospital that she happens to encounter her old rival in love, who is named Joan. Joan Gilling, from the same town with Esther, “was a big wheelpresident of her class and physics major and the college hockey champion” (61), and more than that, one of Buddy Willard’s closest friends. In that respect, Joan is a nuisance for Ethel who is trying to win Buddy as her husband. Either Joan or Ethel is supposed to get married to the Yale student. But now, the old rival in love is offensive to Esther’s eyes in a different meaning: Joan is nonheterosexual and seduces Esther to a nonheterosexual circle. In the conversation with Esther, Joan frankly reveals that she did not like Buddy but his familyespecially, Mrs Willard. And to Esther’s surprise, Joan has an affair in the ward with another patient called DeeDee, and finally announces that she likes Esther better than Buddy, against which Esther coldly resists:‘I like you.”That’s tough, Joan,’ I said, picking up my book. ‘Because I don’t like you. You make me puke, if you want to know.’And I walked out of the room, leaving Joan lying, lumpy as an old horse, across my bed. (232-3)For Esther, who makes an effort to adjust herself to the ideology of the American 1950s, a woman like Joan is nothing but a dangerous character: she lures Esther into the nonheterosexual tendency. Ironically, however, it is the nonheterosexual world that extends to Esther a helping hand after her suicidal attempt. Indeed, her mother, who lives on a small salary, is financially helpless; what she can afford might be to throw her daughter into a “big state hospital in the country” (196) that would hardly offer careful nursing. But in place of her mother, Esther’s benefactor, Philomena Guinea, whose “books [earn] . . . millions and millions of dollars” (42), rescues her and takes her to an excellent private hospital. Although it is unclear whether the female benefactor is nonheterosexual, what her support shows is her tenderness toward a sick college girl. “Is there a boy in the case ?” (196): Mrs Guinea asks Esther’s mother when reading about Esther’s suicide attempt in a Boston paper. As Esther herself acknowledges, “if there was a boy in the case, Mrs Guinea couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with it” (196). Then, it is no exaggeration to say that Philomena Guinea is firmly determined to aiding woman in finding a way out of trouble. The rich benefactor lays stress upon bonds between females, namely, nonheterosexual ties.The chief doctor Esther meets after a male one, Dr. Gordon, who has given her an awful electroconvulsive shock treatment, is Dr. Nolan, and the relationship between the patient and the doctor should not be overlooked, either. In the first place, Esther cannot help but hide her surprise when she is told that her doctor is a female:When I enrolled in the main building of the hospital, a slim young woman had come up and introduced herself. ÅeMy name is Doctor Nolan. I am to be Esther’s doctor.’I was surprised to have a woman. I didn’t think they had woman psychiatrists. . . . She wore a white blouse and a full skirt gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt, and stylish, crescent-shaped spectacles. (197)In the American 1950s, the number of female doctors must have been very small. Despite the fact, the private hospital has some female doctors. Esther confronts here a new community freed from the heterosexual norm which controls the American society. And she becomes a patient of Doctor Nolan, who looks like an ordinary womannot a prim woman with professionalismunlike another female psychiatrist, Doctor Quinn, with “an abstract quality that . . . [gives her] the polar chills” (236). Because of the comfortable nonheterosexual bonds she finds to Doctor Nolan, Esther can leave the hospital earlier than expected. Not to speak of her way of curing, Doctor Nolan’s way of exiting itself cured Ethel’s depression beyond the heterosexual limitations. Lastly but most importantly, the observation of the influence of Joan’s suicide upon Esther should not be omitted. The book does not make it explicit why Joan commits suicide, but such a reason is insignificant here. More noteworthy is the fact that Esther recovers from her depression, stimulated by the tragic death of her friend, Joan. On the day of Joan’s funeral, Esther does not hesitate to attend the ceremony nor mourn her friend’s death. On the contrary, she gets back her lost self during the ceremony: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am” (256). Joan’s death, though the suicide itself is no solution at all, throws a light on at least Esther’s wavering mind. For Joan is nonheterosexual. Esther is convinced that nonheterosexuality brings death to woman: so far as she lives in the heterosexual world, her life is saved. Hence the protagonist’s sexual anguish comes to end. She decides to go back to the world regulated by the heterosexual disciplines. The events in the private hospital, as well as other incidents depicted in The Bell Jar, are thoroughly based on Plath’s own experiences. At McLean Hospital in Belmont where a famous novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty, recommended, she met Dr. Beuscher, and a nonheterosexual relationship between the two women smoothly remedied her depression. As Esther does in the book, Plath received electroconvulsive shock treatments several times with her own consent, which accelerated her recovery. As for a friend like Joan in the novel, there seems to be no record.2 It is plausible that Plath made up a Joan-figure from scattered events she heard, saw, or experienced herself. But reading the story about Joan in view of the construction of the novel, her suicide is emblematic enough to let Esther recover from her disease. Esther/Plath, whose depression was caused by her sexual confusion, rediscovers herself in the nonheterosexual circle–by giving up a nonheterosexual inclination. Now one final point should be made about “the bell jar.” Esther/Plath talks to herself: “. . . I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that somedayat college, in Europe, somewhere, anywherethe bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (254) Before leaving the hospital, she certainly gets herself back. Why does she have to be scared of “the bell jar” which seems to suffocate her? A key to answer this question resides in the electrocution of Ethel Rosenberg again. Even after having revived in the nonheterosexual safety and decided to go back to the heterosexual circle, Esther/Plath is still worried if she should be incidentally allured by the nonheterosexual circle and in danger of being annihilatedlike Ethel Rosenberg. She is after all a woman living in the American society of the 1950s, who is threatened by the norm of the sexual politics of her days, that is, “the bell jar.”Reportedly, Ethel Rosenberg died twice: while her husband, Julius, died immediately at the first volts of electricity, she needed more jolts after the first one. This information is quite symbolic, because Esther/Plath also goes through a similar experience. Unable to adjust herself completely to the sexual politics of the 1950s, she is electroshocked. But the first therapy failed, and she needs more shocks to recover from depressiondepression caused by her torment concerning the choice between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality. And unlike the nonheterosexual Joan, who is destined to be extinguished, Esther/Plath can fortunately be freed from death and the mental institution this time. But “the bell jar” incessantly tries to cover and suffocate the women who are likely to be close to nonheterosexuality; among those is Esther/Plath herself. It is necessary for her, then, to take great care not to be assaulted by “the bell jar” again. The story of The Bell Jar, in short, ends without a guarantee that the sexual politics will never afflict another Esther/Plath. The problem brought by the sexual politics in the American 1950s remains unsolved within the protagonist and the author.In this way, Plath reveals in the novel The Bell Jar her own difficulty in living in the American 1950s, when heterosexuality was considered to be normal. She was not a lesbian; but at the same time, she was not thoroughly against building up relationships among the females. Such an obscure attitude towards the sexual politics, however, was inexcusable in the conservative society that demanded heterosexuality of people. It can be concluded, in that sense, that Plath’s alter ego, Esther, is one example of the 1950’s American women who endeavored to prove their own heterosexual tendencies. Using her own tragic experience, Plath translated in The Bell Jar one of the female problems begotten by the sexual politics that thrived in the American 1950s. Notes:1 Adrienne Rich contends in her “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that “the failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness” (216), and discusses that heterosexuality is problematic. What is meant by heterosexuality, according to this radical feminist, is not only a physical impulse but a social institution which tries to suppress woman. I hardly share this opinion. For Rich’s view of “compulsive heterosexuality” indicates that private heterosexual relationships should be totally denied and that the relationships are to be replaced by homosexuality. It is too far-fetched to demand all women that they become lesbians. Therefore, to evade misunderstanding, I use the term “nonheterosexual(ity),” instead of “homosexual(ity),” when implying the relationships characterized by a tendency to direct either emotional or physical desire toward the same sex. It has to be noted “nonheterosexuality” does not necessarily imply “homosexuality,” an exclusive activity with another of the same sex. The term “nonheterosexuality” in this study signifies solid relationships among the same sex (between females, in particular).2 Neither of the fairly recent autobiographies by Linda Wagner-Martin and Anne Stevenson refers to this point. Works CitedBrennan, Sheila M. “Popular Images of American Women in the 1950s and Their Impact on Ethel Rosenberg’s Trial and Conviction.” Women’s Rights Law Reporter 14 (1992): 41-67.Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. 1963. New York: Norton, 1983.Nizer, Louis. The Implosion Conspiracy. New York: Doubelday, 1973.Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. 1963. London: Faber, 1966.—. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. 1982. London: Anchor-Doubleday, 1998.—. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath. 1975. London: Faber, 1999.—. “Two Sisters of Persephone.” Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1981. London: Faber, 1989. 31-2.Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton, eds. The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. 1983. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (1980): 631-60. Rep. In Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: Norton, 1993. 203-24.Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon, 1987.Works ConsultedAxelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.Bronfen, Elizabeth. Sylvia Plath. Writers and Their Work. Plymouth, UK: Northcote, 1998.Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free-Simon, 1989.Garber, Marjorie, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds. Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America. New York: Routledge, 1995.Schrecker, Ellen. “The Impact of McCarthyism.” 1995. Black Listed: An Audio Drama about the Hollywood Blacklist. Online. Spencer W. Wisbroth Esq. 5 June, 1999.Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 1974.Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Viking-Penguin, 1989.Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Twayne’s Masterworks Studies 98. New York: Twayne, 1992.
“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”Sylvia Plath has long been recognized as a poetic icon. After committing suicide in her thirties, many of her previously unrecognized works gained notoriety and praise. Throughout her life, she struggled to be accepted into the literary world. After writing many poems, short stories and “The Bell Jar,” she remained unsatisfied with the success and momentum she gained with each, and took her own life. It is through her words we see a woman that used her writing as a means of expression, many times expressing grief, sadness and anger. Plath began writing a series of poems shortly before her death that provide is with an opportunity to see the internal conflicts she felt. Many of these poems focus on death and suffering. Plath uses death imagery in poems found in Ariel to represent her need to escape reality and therefore dissociate herself from emotional and physical existence. I will show how Plath’s life experiences and more importantly, her reactions to them, have contributed to her depressive, death-obsessed state. I will also provide examples from several of her poems demonstrating Plath’s use of death imagery and analyze why it is used in the way that it is. Lastly, I will show how many of her poems from Ariel demonstrate Plath’s self-loathing, and her need to feel a sense of success-even if that success comes from an accomplished suicide. Although Sylvia Plath had many opportunities throughout her life, and accomplished what many only dream of, we see how the few tragedies she did endure, affected her. At age eight her father died from complications related to diabetes. Plath had been very close to her father, and while not much is mentioned of him in “The Bell Jar,” the book that is thought to be Plath’s autobiography, we see the internal struggles she felt over his death in her poems found in Ariel.One of her highly acclaimed poems “Daddy,” shows her sadness and anger surface. This poem is written in an angry tone, as if she is struggling to understand something that is unclear to her- primarily the death of her father. Plath attempted suicide twice prior to writing the poems found in Ariel, and we see her expressing a need to die so that she can be with her father again. “I was ten when they buried you/At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you/I thought even the bones would do” (51). We see in these lines how the loss of her father has affected her life. When she says, “I thought even the bones would do” she is lacking realistic thought. She feels that just having some small portion of her father back would provide her with a sense of happiness, although it is highly evident this is not possible. This shows Plath’s confusion over her father’s death and her need to feel close to him. Later we see her speaking of a relationship that resembles more a marital one than that of father and daughter. “And I said I do, I do” (51). Because this was written when Plath was suffering from severe depression and her writing was at its peak, one can believe that her lines between her father and husband were somewhat “blurred” and she speaks of them both as “Daddy.” Linking the two together shows that Plath admits that her lack of relationship with her father has ultimately led to failed relationships with men throughout her life. At the time the Ariel poems were written, Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, had left her and was having an affair with another woman. This became another event in her life that contributed to her deteriorating mental state and resulting use of death imagery. In “Daddy” we see Plath showing grief over the loss of her father, but also see her anger towards Hughes surface. “Daddy I have had to kill you” (49). Here Plath is confining herself to the fact that Hughes is not coming back, so she feels a need to “kill” him, or at least the idea of them being together again. The last line in this poem shows Plath’s contentment with death, and her erratic, angry thought patterns. “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (51). Plath succumbs herself to the idea of death as her loss of Hughes is yet another failure for her, leaving her with yet another reason to no longer go on living. While some of Plath’s works are cheerful in nature such as “The Bed Book,” a children’s book, the poems found in Ariel are laden with death imagery indicative of Plath’s loss of reality and her need to detach herself from emotions other than those that are negative. In “Lady Lazarus,” she writes the quote found at the beginning of this paper: “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well”(7). Most of us know that dying is not something that can be considered an art form. Once you’ve done it, there is no chance to do it again. However, Plath shows us how her obsession with death has consumed her to the point of taking pride in and making a “hobby” of it. We see how Plath almost becomes excited at the notion of death again in “Lady Lazarus” when she says, “Soon, soon the flesh/The grave cave ate will be/At home on me/And I am a smiling woman.” (6). In “The Birthday Present” we see Plath anticipating a gift, yet demonstrating ambiguity at the same time. She wonders what the present may be, yet she says, “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year/After all I am alive only by accident”(42). This shows how Plath cannot be excited about a present when she is anything but excited about even being alive. Many of Plath’s poems show a sense of self-loathing and internal disappointment. These poems show how her image of herself had contributed to her thoughts of death and failure. Plath wrote “Sheep In Fog,” found in Ariel, which shows Plath’s ideas of how others see her. “People or stars regard me sadly, I disappoint them…They threaten to let through to a heaven…”(3). Threatening is usually used to convey a negative consequence to an action. Most people regard heaven as the ideal place to go after death. Plath uses the line, “threaten to let me through to heaven,” to show how she feels she does not want to go there, or maybe doesn’t deserve to. Plath’s poem “Cut” tells of a girl accidentally cutting her thumb and suddenly becoming entranced with it. It shows a point of view from the mind of a self-mutilator. Many people who mutilate themselves do so because it invokes an emotion. Many sufferers of this problem find that mutilating themselves creates a sense of accomplishment. In “Cut,” Plath says “What a thrill. My thumb instead of an onion” (13). This leads us to believe that she meant to cut the onion, but hit her thumb instead, and after thoroughly examining the results-bleeding from the wound-she became infatuated with it. The last stanza reads: “How you jump-trepanned veteran/Dirty girl/thumb stump” (13). This leads me to believe that Plath is disappointed that she “jumped” when she cut herself, which to Plath shows weakness, whereas she should have tolerated it better. Calling herself “Dirty girl” again accentuates the idea that Plath uses her words to show her shattered self image. We see Plath’s perceptions of herself and others through her works also. In “The Birthday Present,” Plath is awaiting a gift, as mentioned before, but her resistance about receiving it is evident. She uses the word “veil” many times to show that she feels people are not what they appear to be-they wear disguises. Plath says “only let down the veil, the veil, the veil” (44). Later she again relates these emotions to death. “If it were death I would admire the deep gravity of it” (44). If the gift were death, she could be happy about it, but not knowing for sure that’s what it is, she cannot find true excitement in receiving it. Plath exhibits fear at becoming what others hope her to be. Although we see through her poems that she is truly unhappy, she does not take any measures to make her life better. In “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” Plath describes this box in which there are bees that she knows she should be afraid of, yet she finds herself drawn to them. “I have to live with it overnight/And I can’t keep away from it” (59). This shows her self-destructive behaviors surface again as she is drawn to a known evil. Later she says, “I wonder if they would forget me…They might ignore me immediately…I am no source of honey…so why should they turn on me?” (60) These lines show Plath’s perception of herself once again. Saying that she is “no source for honey” can be interpreted to mean that she feels that she does not provide what people need from her. On the other hand, this may mean that she should not be attacked for the way she is. In reality, bees go after honey. If she is not honey, they will not want her. In the same breath, if she does not want, or give them what they need, she can remain the way she is-depressed, lonely, and again…self-loathing. Many interpretations can be made about Sylvia Plath’s works. One theme is certainly evident throughout her writings: death. Whatever meaning lies behind her use of death and terms relating to it may never be known, but it is used and that cannot be argued. Plath does a remarkable job of showing that although people can be granted the gifts of knowledge and success, they may long for more in their lives. She was given the gift of writing and words, she was intelligent and successful, but still woke everyday to a void and loneliness in her life. All of the virtues that life afforded her could not mount up enough to save her from the severe depression and turmoil she felt. Her writings show the inner workings of her mind. The thoughts she had just prior to her death poured onto paper and were reproduced into Ariel. While it is tragic that her death may have been prevented had her writings been recognized sooner, we will never know if they would have become what they did had she lived. Ironically, she wanted to be known for her writing, and her death was what accomplished that for her. Death was a theme found in many of her works, and I believe, her biggest inspiration. Although her works are fraught with depression, I feel Plath was happiest when she was writing, whatever the focus was. I feel that the death imagery shown throughout her works is indicative of her style and a reflection her life. I have shown how the death of her father and split from her husband contributed to her feelings of depression and inadequacy, all leading to her lust for mortality. I have shown specific excerpts from her poems that accentuate her use of death imagery and analyzed why I feel she used it in the context and manner in which she did. I have also shown how the use of death as a theme in her works enables readers to understand the psyche behind the woman-the self-loathing and destruction that led to her eventual suicide. Plath’s works may be depressing and gruesome at times, but each tells a story-a story of a woman, her life, her struggles, her successes and her failures. All of them allow us to step into the broken mind and heart of Sylvia Plath.
In The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, gets accepted to a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City. There, she meets Doreen, her co-worker. Esther is different from her. Doreen goes against the boundaries that society pushes Esther and the other girls to follow. She is scandalous and adventurous in her sexual behaviour, she does not listen to or follow authority, and she is the total opposite of Betsy, Esther’s co-worker. Esther admires her but is too afraid to fully embrace her and be like her since Esther is scared of the consequences she might face. In the story of The Bell Jar, Doreen represents the possibility of rebellion against social norms in 1950s America without facing the consequences that Esther fears, this may influence Esther to rebel against the society too.
Doreen ignores the society’s rule for women regarding sexual purity. Due to Doreen’s promiscuous behavior, Esther is attracted to her. When Esther is a good girl, she feels miserable and bored of her life. Therefore, when she sees Doreen behave this way, Esther is envious. Esther wants to feel free as Doreen. Because of this Esther follows Doreen and go to a strange man’s apartment. This would be considered quite risqué at the time. Esther also rejects Betsy’s offer to share a cab in order to go with Doreen. On their way to a party, both of the girls meet Lenny who convinces the girls to abandon the cab and join him and his friends in a bar. In the bar, Lenny and Doreen openly flirt with each other. The journey of flirtation continuous at Lenny’s apartment This happens in the story when Esther states:
I noted, in the routine way you notice the color of somebody’s eyes, that Doreen’s breasts had popped out of her dress and were swinging out slightly like full brown melons as she circled belly-down on Lenny’s shoulder, thrashing her legs in the air and screeching, and then they both started to laugh and slow up, and Lenny was trying to bite Doreen’s hip through her skirt when I let myself out the door before anything more could happen and managed to get downstairs by leaning with both hands on the banister and half sliding the whole way (Plath 16).
Doreen does not care how Esther or other people view her. Doreen knows the problem of their society and is able to acknowledge it and go against it and this attracts Esther. Later, Esther left Doreen and Lenny feeling she is separated from rest of the world. She feels numb as if the city is not there. She may have been feeling overwhelmed by seeing their interactions since she believes in sex after marriage. She tries to fix this feeling by taking a hot bath and purifying herself. Doreen has no problem having sex with Lenny before marriage, illustrating the level of Doreen’s rebellion.
Even though Doreen also gets accepted to a summer internship, she ignores authority and decides to have fun for herself. From the beginning, Doreen tries to talk Esther out of doing her work for Jay Cee. Doreen does not take the magazine work seriously. Esther states, “Doreen lounged on my bed in a peach silk dressing gown, filing her long, nicotine-yellow nails with an emery board, while I type up the draft of an interview with a best-selling novelist” (5). Doreen is more focused on taking care of her nails than her work. Therefore, Doreen can be lazy and have fun. She is not afraid of authority. She does not think of the consequences that may happen if she does not follow their instructions. There is another time where the magazine is holding a luncheon at Ladies’ Day. Everyone attends except for Doreen. She spends the day with Lenny Shepherd. She spends most of her free time with him. She is a rebel and a risk-taker. She does not believe good girls will attract respectable men to marry and rewarded with happiness. It just depends on their luck. However, Doreen gets rewarded even though she defies the authorities and has fun instead.
In the story, Betsy and Doreen act as a foil to each another. Betsy is naive, virgin and sweet. She is someone who will work hard enough to succeed and get what she wants. She represents innocence and obedience within the society. However, Betsy does not know how dangerous the world can be. She does not see the reality like Esther and Doreen. She also shows little curiosity about the world but her cultural background may prevent or shelter her from seeing the world for what they are like Esther. Unlike Betsy, Doreen is able to see through the hypocrisies of their society. Esther states, “Doreen had intuition. Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones” (7). Doreen is able to understand what Esther is going through. Doreen is not like Buddy where he does on consider Esther’s feeling. Doreen also smokes and drinks and not get pressured by the society and is able to go against it. In their idyllic world, they were taught good girls are rewarded with happiness where bad girls end up miserable. However, in the story, there is an example where even good girls were not rewarded for their hard work. Doreen is the only person who did not go to the party. She does not get food poisoning whereas all the girls who go to party like they supposed to, are poisoned. Even though Doreen is not innocent like Betsy, this example shows following the rules does not guarantee a reward.
In The Bell Jar, Doreen does not follow the societal conventions, causing her to represent the rebellion against social norms. Doreen does not care if she is a virgin or not because she is able to recognize the problem in the society. Doreen also is not scared of the authority figures. She is never serious when it comes to work; she would rather have fun. Also, Betsy and Doreen represent a different view of the society. Doreen having sex with Lenny before getting married, defying the higher ups and having different behaviors from Betsy, shows that Doreen represents is the rebellion against societal norms.
Every true artist develops a style, with the greatest managing to produce styles different than their contemporaries. Different styles set artists apart so that people they have not met nor ever will can observe the person’s art and recognize the artist in his or her piece. This recognition of style is found in music — as a person wanders through a shopping mall, catches a snippet of piano music, and connects it to Beethoven — in art — as a person wanders through a museum and sees the tell-tale hues of blue in a painting and connects it to Picasso — and in literature — as a person wanders through the shelves in a library, and upon choosing a book and flipping it open, recognizes the distinct voice as Sylvia Plath’s. This book is The Bell Jar, the semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman Esther Greenwood’s experience with and descent into madness. In the novel, Plath explores the themes of mental illness, death, and individualism with precise but informal diction, revealing the themes to the reader with negative imagery and drawing him or her in with the liberal usage of descriptive language. Between the descriptions, anecdotes, and testimonies, Plath varies her syntax with devices such as polysyndeton and asyndeton. All of these techniques and features contribute to Plath’s overall tone of dark and sardonic honesty, and further Plath’s purpose.
Plath’s purpose in the novel is to expose the reader to the dark, sometimes harrowing, sometimes boring, world of mental illness through the view of an American woman she herself experienced. Although she is educated, Esther Greenwood is young, so her diction is clear and concise but not to the point of academia or pretension. Greenwood is young and depressed, and the latter characteristic contributes to her suicide attempts. Her depression is seen in the negative connotations many of her words and descriptions have. She describes mundane objects such as Doreen’s “nicotine-yellow nails” (Plath 5) and the “color scheme” of a building “based on liver” (Plath 89). This negative bent contributes to Greenwood’s depression; her mental state requires her diction to be concise, as conciseness can be interpreted as bareness to convey Greenwood’s lack of emotions. Of Buddy Willard, Greenwood states, “he wanted me to marry him and I hated his guts,” and whether in romance or everyday happenings, her bluntness is prevalent throughout the novel. Greenwood’s bluntness and experiences are told with a level of informality that straddles between formal and colloquial. In the formal sphere, Greenwood is a poet and educated young adult; in the colloquial sphere, Greenwood employs casual expressions such as “they seemed bored as hell” (Plath 4) and makes pop culture references such as “they both started to jitterbug” (Plath 16), creating a balance between a formal and colloquial voice that results in an overall informal voice.
Plath’s informal style is composed of a surplus of description; Greenwood describes feelings, surroundings, and appearances with colorful figurative language like similes and metaphors, so much so that she borders on the point of excess. Just on one page, Greenwood is in a situation where the world is “sparkling about [her] like…precious stones,” she dives “like a cork,” and the flowers “nodded like bright, knowledgeable children” (Plath 161). Comparisons like these bring Esther Greenwood’s world to life for the reader through the relation of common objects or concepts to objects or concepts in the narrator’s life. Greenwood’s manipulation of the connotation her comparisons have paints a specific image for the reader so he or she participates in a viscerally vicarious experience of mental illness; a simple rainy day is perceived as dreadful, such as when Greenwood describes the streets as “gray and fuming with rain” and the rain as “not the nice kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain…they must have in Brazil” (Plath 41). Greenwood’s choice of language can be attributed to both her and Plath’s positions as poets, a profession that excels in producing numerous examples of descriptions that create concrete, specific images. Plath and Greenwood’s descriptions create the image of a world seen through the lens of a mentally disturbed person, explaining the negative lean of the majority of her descriptions throughout the novel.
Throughout the novel, Plath uses metaphorical images to convey messages and themes. One metaphor she uses is a fig tree, one that “from the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked,” and Greenwood explains her own uncertain future in relation to the many different branches on a fig tree; she claims, “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death” (Plath 77). Plath’s metaphorical descriptions appeal to the readers’ physical senses (majorly visual). While she uses similes and metaphors, Plath also uses personification to render the world real to readers. Greenwood sees a fountain that “threw up its hands” (Plath 89) and hears “miserable noises that had been prowling around in [her]” (Plath 102). With personification Plath brings to life inanimate objects, and she also brings to life abstract concepts with her imagery; at one point, climbing into bed was to Greenwood as pleasant as “stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh clean envelope,” relating her low self-worth with visuals and metaphors. She does not only use visual descriptions, employing other senses such as scent when Plath describes a chemical that “smelt of rotten eggs” (Plath 38), engaging a reader and making the reading material more real to the reader in different ways. Plath engages the reader’s sense of hearing when she employs onomatopoeia in describing Greenwood’s heartbeat that went “I am, I am, Iam” (Plath 243), describing the rhythmic beat of a heart with repetition but also conveying the deeper theme of Greenwood’s search of self and her desire for individualism with the words “I am.” Plath’s employment of all the reader’s senses engage the reader and convey the negative and vortex-like emotions of Greenwood.
Greenwood’s story is told through a variety of sentence structures. Plath’s short sentences are blunt and dry, contributing to the portrayal of Greenwood’s lack of emotion; Plath’s long sentences are often descriptive, and she employs run-on sentences to achieve a certain effect in the description of different situations. When describing the “long stream of visitors” (Plath 202) who come to visit her in the correctional institution, Plath uses a run-on sentence to convey Greenwood’s overwhelming irritation at the high number of visitors. While run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect, both Plath and Greenwood are educated so their usage of the unique sentence structure is deliberate. Another deliberate ordering of words Plath employs is repetition and parallelism; she uses these to draw the reader’s attention in and add variation to her sentences. In describing her acquaintance Joan’s abilities, Greenwood says “Joan had walk privileges, Joan had shopping privileges, Joan had town privileges” (Plath 205), and the repeating phrases create a monotonous list conveying Greenwood’s frustration in Joan’s excess amount of privileges. Along with parallelism, Plath employs polysyndeton and anaphora. Plath conveys the monotony and tediousness of the typical day of a typical housewife, which would involve “getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown,” (Plath 84) through polysyndeton. Through anaphora, Greenwood describes her ideas that would provide an excuse as “the glove, the handkerchief, the umbrella, the notebook [she] forgot” (Plath 98), allowing the reader to consider each object and excuse quickly but individually.
The content composing Plath’s structured sentences is often negative, whether it be in description or imagery, contributing to the overall negative tone of the novel. Plath’s tone is dark, honest, and sardonic. Her descriptions have negative connotations, as Greenwood’s emotions are dark and bleak due to her depression and her unstable condition; the novel deals with heavy, somber themes like death, self-loathing, and overwhelming uncertainty. These themes are revealed in a realistic and personal manner, in a tone appropriate for a young female college student who is intelligent but disturbed. The honesty of her tone contributes to Greenwood’s relatability — through her recollections and anecdotes, she paints a clear and scathing image, and while Greenwood is ultimately ill, readers can better relate to Greenwood through the tone’s honesty than if the novel was scientific or aloof. The aforementioned fig tree metaphor is one that all modern American readers can relate to in that there are various options for the future; people often want “each and every one” (Plath 77), and by choosing one they lose all others. While Plath’s tone of honesty and darkness is profound, deep, and exploratory, she also adopts at times a sardonic tone, a tone that conveys her wanton disregard for reality and her lack of emotion in her mental state. Greenwood describes herself as “wise and cynical as all hell,” (Plath 8) and this along with other surprising descriptions can draw a laugh from the reader, not despite the book’s actual dark content but because of it. The humor provides a welcome respite from the other dark aspects of the novel, but its nature also furthers Plath’s theme of mental instability.
Plath’s themes of mental instability, death, and the pursuit of self are explored in a tone composed of honest, dark, and sardonic elements. Excessive and dark details are found throughout the novel in the form of similes, metaphors, and personification. These details are written in varying sentences, long and short, with devices such as anaphora and polysyndeton creating a desired effect in the reader. The reader can relate to Greenwood; in her honest and informal voice, she brings the problems Plath and many others even today struggle with — the prospect of death, and the pursuit of self in an age of uncertainty.
Sylvia Plath, the author of The Bell Jar, once said, “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Sylvia). Like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, Plath struggled with depression and mental illness. This aspect of her life became a very prominent theme in her novel, but it is far from the only one. As Esther deals with this mental instability, she also suffers greatly from the expectations society has for her as a woman. Esther’s frustration with all of the talk of children, marriage, and working under men is one of the main reasons why she becomes depressed. Society has several stereotypes for women. However, although the expectations of women play a more prominent role in the story, there are several male stereotypes that are reinforced and revealed as well. Through characters such as Buddy, Marco, and Doctor Gordon, a definite and often negative gender identity revolving around several stereotypes is developed for men. More specifically, in the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, most of the male characters are portrayed as having stereotypical qualities such as selfishness, a condescending attitude, and the belief that women should comply with society’s expectations. This reveals that while society has many stereotypes for women, it also places several on men as well.
To begin, one male character who is portrayed as having stereotypically male characteristics is Buddy Willard, Esther’s former boyfriend. One of the stereotypical aspects that he possesses is the strong belief that men should be the head of the household and that women need to be married. When Esther rejects his marriage proposal and says that she never was to get married, he responds, “You’re crazy…You’ll change your mind” (Plath 89). Through his response, Buddy reveals that he expects women to get married, which reinforces the gender stereotype that men would believe this. At the same time, two other gender stereotypes that Buddy represents are selfishness and the belief that men are always in control. When he goes to visit Esther, it is not to support her, but to ease his guilt about the fact that he may have contributed to her condition. He asks her, “Do you think there’s something in me that drives women crazy?” (Plath 229). When Esther tells him that it was not his fault, he is very relieved, and does not seem to care at all about how Esther is doing. Through this, Buddy shows that not only does he just think of himself, he also believes that women do not even have the capacity to go out of their minds without the help of a man. This reveals two stereotypically male traits, selfishness and the belief that men have control over women, that are reinforced through Plath’s novel. In other words, by portraying Buddy as selfish and condescending, Plath reinforces two major stereotypes of men.
Furthermore, another character who reinforces several male stereotypes through The Bell Jar is Marco, a man Esther meets at a party Doreen takes her to. Although he is not a major character in the story, it is clear through his actions that he is both condescending and demanding. Also through his actions with Esther, one can conclude that he is powerful and enjoys having that power. All of these characteristics are traditional stereotypes for men. While Esther dances with Marco, she describes him as a “woman-hater,” and says such “woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power” (Plath 103). By portraying this character on a pedestal, Plath continues to reinforce these stereotypes. Through this scene it is implied that men hold the power in relationships, and that their role in society is to be on top. Additionally, Marco represents yet another male stereotype in that he only desires Esther for sex. After they dance, he leads Esther outside and “set[s] his teeth to the strap at [her] shoulder and [tears her] sheath to the waist” (Plath 104). When she tries to get away he holds her down and calls her a “slut” (Plath 105). Going so far as attempting to rape her, Marco clearly only wants Esther for sex. Also, during this scene Esther does not seem surprised about the situation, which contributes to the overall gender identity the novel has developed for men by implying that this is normal and even expected behavior. Overall, Marco is a character who represents and supports several male stereotypes in Plath’s novel.
In addition, Esther’s doctor, Doctor Gordon, is also portrayed as having several stereotypically male characteristics. First of all, before Esther meets Dr. Gordon, she is hoping that he will be able to help her become more like herself again. However, as soon as she sees the doctor she determines that he is “good-looking” and “conceited” (Plath 124). She then assumes that he will not be able to help her. Through Esther’s quick assumptions, it is revealed that she expects men, especially good-looking men, to be conceited. Coupled with the fact that Doctor Gordon is a Doctor, which is commonly thought of as a male profession, it is clear that several male stereotypes are reinforced through this character. Additionally, Doctor Gordon can be compared to the female Doctor Nolan, who Esther prefers. Esther makes it very clear that she dislikes Doctor Gordon, and it does not help that when he gives her a shock treatment it is painful and ineffective. In contrast, Esther gets along successfully with Doctor Nolan, and the shock treatments Dr. Nolan gives her are far more pleasant and successful. Before giving her the first treatment, Doctor Nolan says, “Listen, Esther…I’m going over with you. I’ll be there the whole time, so everything will happen right, the way I promised. I’ll be there when you wake up, and I’ll bring you back again” (Plath 204). Not only does Doctor Nolan administer the treatment properly, she also makes sure that Esther is comfortable. Through this comparison, one can conclude that women are more positive in a power position than men, which challenges the stereotypical idea that men should be in charge. However, it also adds to the general negativity in which men are portrayed throughout the novel, and implies that they are not caring or empathetic. Therefore, Doctor Gordon reinforces several traditional stereotypes of men throughout the novel.
All things considered, through the characters Buddy, Marco, and Doctor Gordon, Sylvia Plath reinforces many male stereotypes and develops a specific gender identity for men in her novel, The Bell Jar. Like how Plath’s own struggles with depression are reflected though her character, Esther, one can assume that this stereotypical and negative portrayal of men came from Plath’s own life as well. Her novel is, of course, an autobiography. This goes to show that stereotypes are not just present in stories and literature. No matter what is done to work against them, stereotypes and gender identities remain rooted in society, and most likely will never completely be erased.
I am, I am, I am. Sylvia Plath’s heart beat, and she translated it the best way she knew how. To a woman who was self-aware to an uncommon degree, what else could the sound be but a relentless reminder of her own existence? Many have pointed to her constant self-scrutiny and introspection as evidence of a idiosyncratic narcissism. However, it is clear that these tendencies were merely part of Plath’s lifelong struggle to understand herself. To know that she was alive was not enough – she had to know who she was, and what she was meant to accomplish during the short time she was permitted sentience. Upon reflecting on her childhood, this unremitting desire to identify herself more explicitly, which at first seems to be an egotistical pursuit, begins to appear more reasonable. After her father died when she was eight, Plath threw herself into her studies, earning high grades and an eventual scholarship to Smith College (O’Reilly 356). There, she continued to experience academic success, and had several of her short stories and poems published in various magazines. However, in 1953, Plath’s carefully constructed world began to disintegrate over a summer she would later immortalize in The Bell Jar. She was refused acceptance into a writing course at Harvard, began to suffer from insomnia, and felt increasingly overwhelmed by her inability to measure up to the high standards she set for herself (O’Reilly 356). These escalating pressures, coupled with the terror and depression Plath felt in the wake of failed electroconvulsive therapy, led her to attempt suicide on August 24th by overdosing on sleeping pills (O’Reilly 356). Although she survived, returning to Smith and graduating summa cum laude two years later, she lived in fear that her life would spiral out of control once more (O’Reilly 356). Attempting to understand how exactly she had failed, Plath drew a sharp distinction between the inner and outer selves. She decided that her efforts to maintain a flawless persona were doomed from the beginning, owing not to any error on her part, but to the mere fact that her weaker, imperfect self had remained on the inside, struggling under the increasing weight of her constructed mask. To achieve her original goal, Plath had to do more than pretend – she had to become the ideal, constructing a perfect self from the inside out. From that moment on, everything she wrote reflected the process by which she attempted to recreate herself. Motivated by the intolerable feeling of a disconnect between her outward persona and her inner self, as well as by a persistent sense of “facelessness,” she began by isolating herself emotionally, striving to purify herself by deepening the divide between the Self and the Other. Simultaneously, she began to project facets of her personality onto people whom she felt exemplified similar traits, mentally transforming them into one-dimensional characters and stripping them of their humanity. Then, she rejected those individuals from her life, hypostasising the process of exorcising her own unwanted characteristics. However, Plath never managed to complete this process and emerge from the chaos fully formed. By this time, she was living in Devon, England with her husband and two children. Upon learning of [her husband’s] affair with a mutual friend, she insisted that they separate, and moved to London, frantically writing poems that would later come to be regarded as some of her best (O’Reilly 357). Once again, circumstances combined to overwhelm her, and after struggling to overcome a final depression, she committed suicide on February 11th, 1963 (O’Reilly 357). Sylvia Plath’s lifelong pursuit of a clearly defined personal identity led her to curate her own character, through deliberately isolating the Self from the Other, dehumanizing and subsequently rejecting other people as metaphor for the selection of her own various selves, and beginning to construct an ultimate identity, a process which is clearly reflected in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, her Collected Poems, and her personal journals.
Plath’s all-consuming need for a concrete identity was ultimately rooted in the disconnect she felt between her outward and inward selves, a divide that she used as a major theme in almost everything she wrote. However, it is important to note that Plath originally viewed this sense of lacking identity as a motivating force, a void that served to inspire rather than destroy. During her time at Smith, she wrote, “So you will rot in the ground, and so you say, what the hell? Who cares? But you care, and somehow you don’t want to live just one life, which could be typed, which could be tossed off in a thumbnail sketch… ‘She was the sort of girl…’ and end in 25 words or less” (Journals 64). These sentiments are far more optimistic than those that follow, but even they reveal the beginning of instability and a desperate longing to succeed. As time wore on, her need to define herself became even more pressing. In her poem “Three Women,” she wrote, “There are the clothes of a fat woman I do not know. There is my comb and brush. There is an emptiness. I am so vulnerable suddenly,” revealing her belief that one cannot be resilient or fulfilled without first knowing one’s identity (Collected Poems 184). Elena Ciobanu asserts that in Plath’s work, “Suffering is poetically manifested as a fissure… between the physical and the psychic planes” (Ciobanu 128). It was during the time Sylvia spent at Smith that this concept emerged as a major theme in her writing. For instance, surrounded by other students in the library, she wrote, “I sit here without identity: faceless… Yet I know that back at the house there is my room, full of my presence. There is my date this weekend: someone believes I am a human being, not a name merely. And these are the only indications that I am a whole person,” showing that she felt others viewed her as a cohesive individual, unable to perceive the warring selves she saw so clearly (Journals 26). Believing others didn’t understand the separation she felt, the distance between her inner self and the person she appeared to be on the surface grew larger. On pages 148 and 174 of The Bell Jar, Esther, Plath’s fictional double, refers to her reflection as “the person in the mirror,” an alien image that she cannot reconcile with the person she feels she truly is. Plath’s situation was worsened by the inescapable feeling that time was running out. She best captured this concept in The Bell Jar, writing, “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose” (Bell Jar 77). It is clear that her inability to act, and the resulting anxiety she felt, prompted Plath to begin her doomed search for identity.
After seeking to differentiate between the Self and the Other as an attempt to more clearly identify herself, Plath found herself emotionally isolated. She decided that previous endeavours to comprehend herself had failed because of the sheer difficulty of discriminating between the thoughts, feelings, and characteristics that had come from her organically, and those that originated elsewhere. On page 47 of her Unabridged Journals, an entry reads, “How much of my brain is wilfully my own? How much is not a rubber stamp if what I have read and heard and lived? Sure, I make a sort of synthesis of what I come across, but that is all that differentiates me from another person?” Clearly, Plath was concerned that she was too intertwined with the rest of the world to understand who she was without its influence, outside of the context lent by others. Therefore, she began to create a clearer distinction between the Self and the Other, “purifying” herself in order to observe the result. Here, one can see the origins of Plath’s “ideal of a self uncontaminated by others” (Bonds 50). However, this distinction didn’t lead to the clarity Plath had hoped for, but rather the sense that she was “like a numb trolleybus,” and “very still and very empty” (Bell Jar 2-3). Later, in “Two Campers in Cloud Country,” she recalls this feeling, saying, “I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here” (Collected Poems 144). Although at first she correctly perceives this distance as isolating, she eventually comes to view it as a successful step towards uncovering an identity for herself. By becoming “numb as a fossil,” placing the emotional equivalent of millennia between herself and the rest of the world, she has removed herself to a place where nothing can affect or distort her character. From that point on, purity becomes a major theme in much of her work, at first represented as something desirable. After experiencing an distressing evening, The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood tells herself while bathing, “New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don’t know them, I have never known them and I am very pure” (20). However, as time goes on, purity becomes frequently associated with illness and instability. In “Fever 103°”, the delusional narrator states, “I am too pure for you or anyone,” and in “Tulips,” set in a hospital, she writes,“I am a nun now, I have never been so pure” (Collected Poems 161/232). Finally, Plath realized that even when she was free of new influence from the outside world, she still carried old imperfections inside her. She refers to this feeling in “Elm,” saying, “I am inhabited by a cry. Nightly it flaps out, looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me” (Collected Poems 193). Now that she had defined her self as it existed, she could begin the process of eliminating the “dark things” within her, and become a version of herself without such flaws.
Through a process of dehumanizing, or “flattening,” others and afterward rejecting them as a means of abandoning the parts of herself that they had come to represent, Plath believed she would be able to construct an identity free of outward influence and imperfection. This view of others as instruments she could use in order to achieve her goal is amplified in The Bell Jar, in which Esther displays a general disregard for others, frequently depicting them as one-dimensional doubles for her own various selves. Notably, fellow magazine guest editors Doreen and Betsy come to represent two warring sides of Plath – her brazen, worldly side and her purer, almost saccharine side. Although Esther originally believes that Doreen is closer to representing the person she wishes to be, saying, “Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones,” she eventually rids herself of both, refusing to emulate either one (Bell Jar 7). Similarly, in “Fever 103°,” she renounces the men in her past and the impurities they represent, writing, “Not you, nor him, not him, nor him. (My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) – to Paradise” (Collected Poems 232). Clearly Plath believed that the next step to perfecting her identity was the rejection of impure and imperfect people. Her journals reflect that she took this approach not only in her writing, but also in reality, evaluating the suitability of men based on how well they fit into a highly specific, pre-constructed mould, and making little effort to differentiate between them. As a result, one reading her journals will notice that the names eventually begin to blur together, a faceless parade of identical recollections. As time went on, her poetry became infused with the idea that she had “good” and “bad” selves, conflicting sides that were beginning to draw her into peril. “In Plaster” reflects this new concept most directly, as Plath writes, “There are two of me now: this new absolutely white person and the old yellow one, and the white person is certainly the superior one…. She wanted to leave me, she thought she was superior, and I’d been keeping her in the dark, and she was resentful” (Collected Poems 158-159). In Plath’s reckless rejection of all she deemed unfit, she had done more than dehumanise others – she had begun to dehumanise herself, dismembering her identity almost beyond recognition. She wrote, “I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips, and I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself” (Collected Poems 161). Her efforts to reject all exterior ties in order to preserve the self had left it without others to nurture and protect it when Sylvia refused to (Bonds 52). Although Plath finally felt that she had removed her imperfections and could begin to build an identity anew, she was unaware of just how unstable her foundation had become.
Although Sylvia’s writings do reference the concept of rebirth and new beginnings, it is clear that she was never truly able to construct her ultimate identity. Despite the startling clarity with which Plath portrays Esther’s descent into madness, her reemergence into society in the final pages of The Bell Jar rings false, as if the author lacks the personal knowledge which lends the rest of the novel its disconcertingly realistic quality. Esther steps into the world again, professedly reborn, but the reader cannot help but feel that she is far from recovered. An unsteady new beginning is also referenced in “Three Women,” as the narrator says, “I am myself again. There are no loose ends. I am bled white as wax, I have no attachments. I am flat and virginal, which means nothing has happened. Nothing that cannot be erased, ripped up and scrapped, begun again…. This woman who meets me in windows – she is neat” (Collected Poems 184). Although here the poet still clings to the veneer of recovery, another line reveals the truth – “I am a wound that is walking out of hospital. I am a wound that they are letting go” (Collected Poems 184). Clearly, Plath was exceedingly vulnerable and far from perfected, feeling abandoned by others and betrayed by the mind she had previously relied on to help her succeed. As the journals she kept during the final years of her life were destroyed by her husband after her death, only her last poems remain as hints that she began to view death as the only way to become a whole person. If she could not embody perfection in life, perhaps she could in memory. After all, others had never been able to see past her exterior to the chaos within. The last poem Plath ever wrote began, “The woman is perfected. Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment… Her bare feet seem to be saying: We have come so far, it is over” (Collected Poems 272). She had finally realized that the Self could only escape being “stunted, narrowed, warped, by… outcroppings of heredity” by attaining some semblance of perfection in death, free of life’s contaminating influence (Journals 31). Six days later, Plath ended her own life.
Her failed efforts to identify herself and reach perfection left Plath without outward ties on which she could rely, as the process by which she attempted to achieve her goals required her to depend solely on herself. However, her fate makes it abundantly clear that an identity formed entirely by rejection of the Other cannot survive hardship or enable one to be resilient because it is merely a by-product of a negative reaction rather than honest self-discovery. Through her writings, Plath unintentionally revealed that her attempts to purify herself had resulted in a dismemberment of her identity, a fundamental disturbance in the necessary relationship between the Self and the Other (Bonds 52). However, it is also likely that Plath’s own perfectionist tendencies contributed to her feelings of failure and isolation. No matter how others perceived her, she remained perpetually unconvinced that her identity was strong, flawless, or cohesive enough. One journal entry, dating from 1952, reads almost as a premonition of what was to come. “I am afraid. I am not solid, but hollow…. I do not know who I am, where I am going – and I am the one who has to decide the answers to these hideous questions” (Journals 149). Undoubtedly, her efforts to destroy her ties to others and aspire to perfection led to failure. However, earlier writings suggest that perhaps had she chosen to nurture these same ties, she could have succeeded. The young Sylvia Plath was brilliant and filled with vitality, despite her imperfections. Had she chosen a less destructive path to self-discovery, she may have been able to remain as she felt at Smith: “…young, beautiful, and maybe not too damned” (Journals 140).
Clearly, Sylvia Plath’s desperation to identify herself and repair the disconnect she felt between her outward persona and true self led her to isolate herself and reject others in an attempt to purify and perfect herself, a process which is shown throughout her writings. Through striving to better understand herself, she eventually lost herself entirely. Although the inner workings of Plath’s mind will continue to be arcane, it is possible to hypothesize that in the end, she was unable to accept that her goals were impossible to achieve. The disconnect between who she was and who she wanted to be would always exist, and the world would never understand her entirely, because even she couldn’t do so. Plath herself best explains it:
“Outwardly, all one could see on passing by is a tan, long-legged girl in a white lawn chair, drying her light brown hair in the late afternoon July sun, dressed in aqua shorts and a white-and-aqua halter. The sweat stands out in wet shining drops on her lean bare midriff, and trickles periodically in sticky streams down under her armpits and in back of her legs. To look at her, you couldn’t tell much: how in one short month of being alive she has begun and loved and lost a job, made and foolishly and voluntarily cut herself off from several unique friends, met and captivated a Princeton boy, won one of two $500 prizes in a national College Fiction Contest, and received a delightful, encouraging letter from a well- known publisher who someday ‘hopes to publish a novel she has written.’ There she sits, lazy, convalescent, sweating in the hot sun to make her hair lighter, her skin darker. Tonight she will dress in the lovely white sharkskin hand-me-down dress of her last summer’s employer and gaze winningly at her entranced Princeton escort over drinks and music, under a full moon. To look at her, you might not guess that inside she is laughing and crying, at her own stupidities and luckinesses, and at the strange enigmatic ways of the world which she will spend a lifetime trying to learn and understand” (Journals 108-109).
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