From Syntax to Sarcasm: On Sylvia Plath’s Writing Style in The Bell Jar
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.
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