Books & Thoughts: Sylvia Plath & the Shock that Caused the Bell to Jar

Poet/writer Sylvia Plath is known as much for her body of work as for the tragedy of her short life. And the tragedy of her life is the tragedy of intelligence wasted in a world that doesn’t value it, a world that finds it dangerous and impossible to commodify.

Revisiting The Bell Jar (1963), her only narrative novel, is to revisit Plath’s own unhappiness. The world of the book is a world where people are not allowed to be depressed. The book is often defined a feminist classic because it quite honestly suggests that a woman’s sorry destiny is to have to find happiness as the servant of the man she is to marry or as a spinster with a job that’s generally unfulfilling.

Bright and intelligent 19-year-old Esther is the protagonist of The Bell Jar. Her story is told via first person narration and the parallels between author and character have been subject of literary analysis for decades.

One of the book’s most hard-hitting moments – despite its strangely subdued tone – comes when Esther returns home after a stint as a guest editor of a fashion magazine. Lacking a sense of direction or purpose and unable to voice her talents and fulfil her potential, she falls into a state of depression that causes her to behave in odd ways. Her behaviour eventually convince her mother that shock treatments are the only way to help her.

Shock treatment is now vilified. Yet, at the time of the novel, in the midst of the age of consensus, they were quite a popular practice, particularly in the United State.

Plath doesn’t exaggerate their horror nor does she use a heavy-handed approach in describing the events revolving around Esther’s experience at Doctor Gordon’s hospital. This fact alone shows that Plath doesn’t look down at her readers and believes anyone with an ounce of intelligence will be able to understand the seriousness of the situation without her having to put any unnecessary emphasis on it. In fact, it is arguably this subtle detachment that makes the event all the more powerful.

Likewise, her descriptions of the place and its mentally ill inhabitants appear to be not so different from all the other settings that she describes up to this point. This is true even of her arresting line that reads: “The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.” It is not unlike similar lines she has used to describe her alienation (or inability to connect with the environment) in other places.

The point is that she is as out of place in Doctor Gordon’s hospital as anywhere else.

Later that day, she announces to her mother that she will not be doing anymore shock treatments. Her mother replies with a relief, but it is hardly reassuring when she tells her: “I knew my baby wasn’t like that,” referring to the patients in the hospital, later adding, “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”

By using the term “decide,” the mother shows she believes that Esther is choosing to “not be all right.” In other words, Esther’s mother believes that depression is a choice. This response alone speaks much about the ways in which mental illness was discussed back in the day and how even today, much has to be done to understand it.

The tragedy of this situation is that up to now, most readers will have perceived the decision to subject Esther to shock treatments as a decision that was taken for her. Yet, at the moment she announces that she wants to stop her treatments, we understand that it was Esther’s decision all along. And she makes the decision to end it not because she doesn’t believe it will make her better but because she finds it difficult to concentrate – they actually enhance the alienation. (“I felt dumb and subdued,” she explains.)

Without spoiling the rest of the novel, it is important to once again remember that The Bell Jar is an quasi-autobiographical novel, published in 1963, shortly before her death.

In 1953, the time-setting of this novel, Plath too started geting electro-convulsive therapy for her depression. Shortly after, she made her first medically attempted suicide by ingesting a huge quantity of her mother’s sleeping pills and crawling under her house. The rest is a sad history, which ends with Plath’s taking her own life almost exactly ten years later.

The importance of this shock treatment moment of the book is well worth highlighting for another reason, which is suggested by the title itself.

The word “jar” is defined in the Webster dictionary as “send a painful or damaging shock through (something, especially a part of the body).” Could Plath therefore have been suggesting the shock treatment as what set her off down the path of further self-destruction? And anticipated her eventual, inevitable suicide?

Will we ever get over Sylvia Plath’s death?

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