Soap Symbolism in Fight Club and The Bell Jar

January 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

In both The Bell Jar and Fight Club use the most literal symbols of cleansing and renewal – a bath and soap respectively. Once these books use these literal symbols, the irony sets in. The cleansing remains but the symbolic meaning of the cleansing becomes much more grim and troubling. Appropriately enough, both books are first person narratives about protagonists who are slowly realizing that they don’t have full control of their mental states.

The Bell Jar is an unsentimental book about mental illness where Sylvia Plath depicts her internship in New York City and her subsequent nervous breakdown through the character of Esther Greenwood. Esther Greenwood’s stability erodes throughout the novel to the point where she seems to be a drastically different character at the end than she was at the beginning.

Early in the book, the bath is symbolic purely of renewal from the stress of the day. “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them” (16). The bath is posited as the answer to many problems including insomnia, love, and sorrow over death. She even has a ritual of heating up the water to the point that it’s hard to put one’s foot in and then to slowly lower herself into the bath.

The bath lasts for several paragraphs where she imagines all of the people and items that are worrying her dissolving. “I felt myself growing pure again,” (17) she states right before she explicitly tells the reader that she does not believe in ritual baths like the waters of Jordan or baptism. She repeats the word pure several times until she concludes the bath scene by stating she felt “pure and sweet as a new baby” (17).

By contrast, the second bath scene is one of suicidal ideation. She is still thinking about cleansing and renewal; however, at this point in the narrative she is thinking about literal death. She is talking about Romans who would be ordered to commit suicide and slit their wrists in bathtubs. “I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surf gaudy as poppies” (121).

The scene continues to contrast the whiteness of the wrist and the redness of fruit or poppies. Plath is not necessarily talking about ultimate destruction so much as a renewal that does not have her conscious mind. She can be poppies or fruit or something natural and beautiful that is not beset by brain chemistry that seeks to destroy her.

In Fight Club, the most literal manifestation of cleansing and renewal is the soap and the soap making. Appropriately enough it comes when he unknowingly begins to make an actual connection with another human being. In the early parts of the novel, the narrator is going to support groups for people with diseases that he doesn’t have and flying throughout the country in order to judge claims. He talks about single bars of soap to go along with everything else that is single and disposable. He is a tourist attempting to connect to a people in a world that illustrate Marxist principles about social alienation.

Appropriately enough, he begins to make a connection with Marla at the same time he becomes a small business owner. According to classical Marxism, social alienation is a natural result of workers being cut off from the means of production. In a pre-industrial society craftsmen could take pride in their work, but after the industrial era workers became cogs in a machine. As the narrator begins to have sex with Marla, he is also taking control of the means of production.

Yet, the narrator remains distant from both Marla and the soap production since he does not realize that he is the one who is performing the actions. Instead, he concocts an imaginary figure named Tyler Durden. He even suspects that Tyler and Marla are the same person in a foreshadowing of the plot twist where he learns that he is the same person as Tyler Durden.

In the world of Fight Club, soap takes on a sinister tone as Tyler Durden talks about the glycerin in the soap which needs to be skimmed and then “you can mix the glycerin with nitric acid to make nitroglycerin” (72). If that does not make the point enough, Tyler Durden then states that “with enough soap…you could blow up the world” (73).

Thus, the soap becomes a weapon and a source of strife. Human sacrifice is invoked when the narrator starts burning his own hand with glycerine. When Marla brings bags of her mother’s fat which are designated for operations, the narrator (as Tyler) makes them into soap and this is how the narrator knows that he is using Marla’s mother to make the soap.

The soap works as a large scale cleansing agent in order to tear down the entire world in order to build it anew. The soap becomes not only the basis of operations but also the explosive material that allows for terrorist attacks. It even becomes a symbol of the enlightenment promised to Project Mayhem. The narrator is watching these soap-related events from a Tyler remove and remains alienated from his own handiwork when he asks “Has Tyler promised Big Bob enlightenment if he spends sixteen hours a day wrapping bars of soap?” (131) In both The Bell Jar and Fight Club the literal objects of cleaning become symbols of cleansing; however, they are depicting a sinister form of cleansing where the characters seek to transcend life and the social order.

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