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Sylvia Plath took her own life shortly after publishing her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, in 1963. Reception to the novel was lukewarm and it is possible that its failure put another nail in the coffin of her fragile state of being.
Both Plath and the young protagonist of her novel, Esther, who is based on her own experiences as a young girl in the mid-’50s, have been said to represent the dilemma of being an intelligent woman. Despite its narrative time-frame, The Bell Jar remains frighteningly relevant to today’s world and despite its deeply feminine elements, it is quite easy for anyone to identify with the story, regardless of sex or gender.
Esther’s mental illness is very real and comes complete with frequent fantasies about suicide. The inability of doctors and hospitals to treat her condition or even understand it are best represented in references to shock treatments. These references are not heavy-handed and for that reason all the more horrific.
While frowned upon today, shock treatments were quite popularly used methods of treating mentally ill patients at the time, especially in the United States, where they were even used, for instance, to cure homosexuality. The origins of Esther’s mental illness is a profound state of confusion – a confusion that could be perceived as part of an imbalanced intellectual upbringing and formation.
Despite her knowledge in scholarly subjects, books, literature and poetry, Esther knows little about real life and how to make her way in the real world.
Her formidable intelligence is no source of happiness or fulfilment. On the contrary, it makes it harder for her to relate to the environment around her, and the people who are far more concerned with that same real life that she knows nothing about – a real life made of career, bureaucracy, money, etiquette and so on.
At one point she laments the death of her father, who she believes would have got her started in a career in biology. In another, she expresses her anger at hearing another girl talk about her career plans of becoming a psychiatrist.
Her romance with Buddy Willard is quite significant. She was once very much in love with him but from the beginning of the novel, we understand that love has died abruptly. We later find that she became immediately disenchanted by his revelation of the fact that he, unlike her, was no longer a virgin.
Willard represents the world that is traditionally identified in psychoanalysis as masculine. This is a world defined by power best represented by material possession.
Willard’s revelation of his affair with a waitress at a holiday resort immediately exposes her to this masculinity and the role of the woman within this world as an object that must be possessed. It also spurs in her a desire to take charge of her own sexuality – a choice that manifests itself especially in the closing chapters of The Bell Jar.
Esther’s concerns with sexuality coincide with the theme of body in The Bell Jar. As mentioned, Esther is alienated from the people and the world around her. But the most worrying thing is her alienation from her own body.
Throughout the novel, she makes a series of discoveries about the human body whether on trips with Willard to the hospital – where, in one of the standout moments of the book, she witnesses a childbirth – or by reading books to formulate self-diagnosis, in a sequence predating similar internet practices.
One could make a strong argument that Plath represents knowledge as a curse rather than a blessing precisely because the knowledge she acquires of her own body is what prompts her to take charge of its destiny as much as her discovery of sex prompts her to take charge of her own sexuality.
To take charge of her own body, Esther takes a tragic, inevitable decision: to take her own life. The second half of The Bell Jar largely revolves around the account of her suicide attempts, which despite her determination, should strike the reader for their lack of romanticism.
Something often overlooked about the book is the significance of its racial insensitive remarks. This racism is a manifestation of her frustration at her inability to take charge of her own destiny and connect with the world around her.
It has often been said that as someone grows older, they become more embittered. This embitterment has been pointed out in recent outcomes of political elections, where old people have been blamed for victories of populist moments waving flags of racial intolerance high.
The presence of such phrases as people from Peru being “ugly as Aztecs” should not be seen as evidence of Plath’s racism but as part of a comprehensive, candid representation of the origins of deep unhappiness and its repercussions on society at large.
This candid representation is also evident in a rather more simple fact: Esther is not necessarily a likable person. She appears to be un-apologetically selfish, self-centered and disagreeable.
While we understand her, we do not necessarily agree with her. While we root for her, we also quietly judge her actions. Staunch fans of the novel will support the thesis that a reader’s behaviour towards her is exactly the problem that Plath tries to highlight about the ways in which the world perceives the role of women and/or mental illness.
I say that the double standard regarding this aspect of The Bell Jar is part of its genius: in an ironic twist, Esther not only becomes alienated from her environment and from her own body but also from the reader. And it is only natural that it should be so, for Plath describes Esther’s existential state as an encolosure within a bell jar; something very real. A physical barrier that separates her as an entity from all other entities – including the external entity of the reader.
While this text has apparently been taken over by thoughts on how it represents alienation in various ways, it must be said that The Bell Jar lends itself to innumerable different types of readings. It is a very rich work of literature which carries heavy messages and meaningful observations about many subjects, some of which would have been taboo even in 1963, when it was first released.
It is hard to underplay the importance of humour within this work; it is a dark but constantly present sense of humour that has been highlighted in numerous writings about it. Certainly, humour is a powerful tool for communicating powerful messages as the works of other artists such as Franz Kafka and Charles Chaplin have shown us. It is perhaps the use of this tool that made The Bell Jar disagreeable to many upon its release.
For Plath, poetry was always a means for communicating truths about her own life to others, as well as a way to understand and document her own state of being.
Her early death remains one of the most talked about tragedies experienced by Western literature in the 20th-century. Like most artists, however, the world only understood the extent of her genius after her death and her subsequent erection to a Christ-like figure of feminism comes with a hint of melancholic regret – like the death of Christ and the evolution of the structure of the Catholic Church that followed.
In life, Plath was respected but neither famous nor celebrated. Only a few of her interviews remain and the most revealing documentation of her life comes directly from her own work.
During the last part of her life, she lived with fellow poet and husband Ted Hughes, in a very small apartment in the outskirts of London. By their own admission, they lived together with their children a very simple lifestyle; finances were only good enough to allow them to write.
Hughes may seem like the opposite of The Bell Jar‘s Buddy Willard but it’s not entirely so. Hughes’ fondness of animal imagery reveals a more evident link between poetry and science. Theirs was a troubled relationship.
In biographical terms, Hughes was kind on the surface but caused Plath great trauma after she discovered he had been having affairs with other women. It has been said that this discovery and the disappointment it caused is what further reawakened her suicidal tendencies.
Was The Bell Jar a final attempt she made of reaching out for help? Of communicating with a world that did not listen?This question is destined to keep jarring within the bell of our existence.
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?