Tragic Qualities in Sylvia Plath’s “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”

Considered to be blueprint for the mechanics of tragedy, Aristotle’s Poetics revolves around the assumption that great works of tragedy must include a generous number of mimetic elements, or elements which readily imitate human life. In addition, well-organized tragic plots combine both reversal of fate (peripeteia) and personal recognition (anagnorisis) that largely result from a character’s tragic flaw (hamartia). In relation to Aristotle’s proposed framework for tragedy, Sylvia Plath’s short story “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” unintentionally recreates a tragic plot through the life and actions of the story’s main character.

“Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” details a complex doctor-patient relationship between an unnamed main character and Johnny Panic himself. Working as a secretary assistant in an out-patient clinic, the unnamed character is responsible for recording doctors’ analyses. However, upon becoming increasingly infatuated with Johnny Panic, she begins to copy his patient’s dreams into a notebook she refers to as Johnny Panic’s “Bible.” As the character strives to be more and more like Johnny Panic himself, she begins to discover a dark and sinister side to her idol. Yet, instead of deterring her from her relationship with Panic, this discovery only leads to a stronger obsession. She begins secretly reading and recording outdated dream logs during the brief periods of time that her co-workers are out of the office. Likewise, her growing obsession leads her to devise a plan to stay in her office overnight and accomplish more than she could otherwise. Unfortunately, during the first morning following an overnight stay, she is caught by the Clinic Director and is forced into a wing of the hospital reserved for in-patients. While the story ends with her unwillingly receiving electroshock therapy treatments, her last thought only concerns the loss of Johnny Panic.

In Poetics, Aristotle claims that a tragic character is neither particularly good nor particularly evil. In Plath’s short story, the unnamed character is just that. She is not considered good because she violates the extent of her office duties for her own psychological fulfillment. Yet she does not commit any type of atrocity which would characterize her as inherently bad or evil. Indeed, she has good intentions towards becoming a devout follower of Johnny Panic himself, but her intentions are continuously thwarted by her co-workers’ interruptions. Furthermore, the main character remains consistent and realistic for the story’s entirety. She acts properly in regard to her position as a secretary, doing her daily duties; however, she is unable to suppress the growing obsession she has for Johnny Panic. After all, many everyday people have found themselves engrossed with another person or act at some point in their lives. However, it is this same obsession that leads the unnamed character to her downfall. Ultimately, the character’s tragic fate is a direct result of her dark obsession with something she believes to be good. Plath’s character perfectly embodies not only this Aristotelean aspect of tragic failing, but also follows the aforementioned framework for a tragic hero perfectly.

According to Aristotle, complex plots must involve either “revolution or discovery,” or both (210). In reference to Plath’s short story, the reversal of the female main character’s fate occurs when she is caught reading the old journals of dreams and is led by the Clinic Director to the in-patient psych ward. Leading up to her unexpected shift in circumstances, she falls so deeply into her obsessive worship of Panic that she begins re-creating “dreams that are not written down at all” (160). Even claiming that copying dreams into Panic’s “Bible” is her “real calling,” she attempts to find a deeper meaning within the dreams, eventually slipping into psychological deterioration (157). After being forced into the psych ward, she is given shock treatments by “the latest model in Johnny-Panic killers” (171). When she is receiving the shocks she is able hear the devotional chants of the surrounding priests; nonetheless, she sees and hears Panic’s presence in the light through each crack of electricity, even stating “his word charges and illuminates the universe” (172).

It is here that Plath’s story deviates from Aristotle’s model of tragedy. The unnamed character never achieves full recognition, because to turn against Johnny Panic would be a “crass fate these doctors call health and happiness” (166). At this point, it is clear that Panic is in control of the character’s mind; his influence is constant. When she is “most lost the face of Johnny Panic appears” to comfort her through electroshock treatments (172). She dramatically states in the last moments of the story “he forgets not his own,” showing that she has not fully recognized her fatal obsession (172). However, her scene of suffering does in fact “excite either pity or terror” as Aristotle claims (210). In fact, her shock treatments provide a type of release from the suspense of the action, simultaneously evoking pity from her audience. While full recognition is typically a required feature of tragedy, it is interestingly this lack of recognition that proves this text to be a tragic work. Since the character never completely recognizes her tragic flaw, her ignorance largely contributes to the scene of suffering produced by the story’s end. The audience has no choice but to empathize with Plath’s character as she unwillingly undergoes electrotherapy.

“Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” closely approximates the tragic framework presented by Aristotle. Although this approximation may be unintentional, Plath produces a tragic effect throughout much of her writing. This particular short story exemplifies the mimesis of realistic human action that Aristotle so ardently desired. In addition, the careful crafting of Plath’s unnamed character follows Aristotle’s requirements for a tragic hero. Yet most importantly, the plot includes reversal, a type of recognition, and ultimately a scene of suffering, all true to the main contours of Aristotle’s conception of tragedy.

Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” Literary Aesthetics: A Reader. Ed. Alan Singer and Allen Dunn. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. 205-210. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts.

New York: Harper Perennial, 1979. Print.

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