Monday, February 20, 2012

Literature: Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar

WARNING: this post contains spoilers from the novel. If you have never read the novel and are planning on reading it, I would advise you not to read further.

Back in 2001 - 2002 I finished my MA thesis, based on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, her letters home and her complete journals. It was a bit of a step out of my comfort zone at the time, as I was mainly immersed in the 19th century Romantics, but I was so intrigued by Plath and her legacy that I decided to take the chance and study her writing in depth. It took so much out of me that year that I have only recently been able to read her work again without feeling like that inevitable bell jar was closing in on me again. I was rereading parts of my thesis again this morning and realized how much it had affected me, my own writing and the way I made some changes in my life once it was all over. I only have a hard copy, I think there must be a soft copy on a floppy disc somewhere, but here is part of the introduction to the thesis, with novel synopsis. Maybe one day I will take the time to type it all up again and will post it as a link. In my opinion The Bell Jar is a must-read, even just in terms of literary value. Not only a dark coming of age novel, it also brings up poignant literary themes such as doubles and mirrors, entrapment, escape and questions existence and destiny. I’ve posted some links to other novels in the same vein below.

Sylvia Plath & Esther Greenwood: The Intolerable Struggle to Exist (Introduction)

The myths and the incomprehension that surround Sylvia Plath’s memory were probably brought on by her suicide in 1963. At the time, although her poems and short stories had been published in magazines since her teenage years, her writing career was only beginning to take off in terms of public recognition. When her later poems were published two years after her death, the myths became even greater, and even cloudier. Her later work was at times so bitter and dark, and her suicide tainted the public with so much incomprehension, that her popularity shot up, with people wanting to know who she actually was, and why she killed herself.

This thesis is based on Sylvia Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar, a story about a young girl’s mental disintegration, the questions it brings up about possible links between the narrator in the novel and the author herself. This novel is probably Plath’s most famous piece of work, and brings up the subdued taboo of mental disorder in a semi-casual style, and in a love/hate way that makes it so interesting.

Summary of the novel:

The Bell Jar takes place in the 1950’s, in the year which the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, and starts off in New York, where the narrator – Esther Greenwood – is an intern in a fashion magazine after winning a prize. Esther befriends another fellow intern called Doreen, who is cynical, bemused and a lot more experienced than Esther. Doreen takes Esther out and they meet men, notably a certain Lenny Shephard. During one experience at Lenny’s apartment Esther witnesses Lenny and Doreen become intimate and ultimately violent with each other. Esther leaves the scene and decides to forget the experience. Although she takes care of a drunk Doreen later on in the night she convinces herself that she will have no more to do with her.

Later, Esther goes to a banquet with other prizewinners. Her mind flashes back to an earlier conversation with her editor Jay Cee. Jay Cee had reprimanded Esther for not knowing what she wanted from life, but had also tried to reassure her at the same time. All of the girls at the banquet fall ill from food poisoning.

Mrs Willard, the mother of Esther’s on-and-off Yale student boyfriend Buddy Willard, arranges for Esther to meet an interpreter called Constantin. Esther muses over her relationship with Buddy, who is in a sanitorium recovering from TB. She describes him as a hypocrite. During her outing with Constantin Esther worries about her future. She decides to let Constantin seduce, but then goes back on her decision at the last minute.

At the end of her month in New York, Esther attends a photography session, but bursts into tears when she realizes she cannot decide what to do with her future. During her last evening there she goes to a party where a Peruvian man called Marco tries to rape her, but she ultimately fights him off.

When Esther returns home to the suburbs of Boston she is told by her mother that she has not been accepted to the Harvard Summer School writing course she had applied to. Esther thinks about doing many different projects, but rejects them all nearly immediately. She has problems sleeping and tries using sleeping pills which do not work. She ends up taking the advice of a relative and goes to see a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist, Dr Gordon, does not really listen to Esther, and during her two sessions with him Esther tries to make him diagnose her. Instead he advises her to undergo electroshock treatment. At this time Esther begins to contemplate suicide.

After her shock treatment, which goes badly, Esther tells her mother she will not go back. Her mother merely says that she knew her child was not like all of the awful mad people in the asylums. Esther becomes obsessed with suicide, attempting cutting herself, drowing and hanging herself. In the end she hides in the basement of her house and overdoses on sleeping pills. When she awakes she finds herself in hospital and thinks she has gone blind. Many people visit her, but this makes her feel even more suffocated and put on show, and she behaves like a spoilt child. She is then sent to the psychiatric wing of the hospital.

Thanks to Esther’s benefactress, Philomena Guinea, she is sent to a private mental institution where she is put in the Caplan wing and is treated by Dr Nolan, a woman, who promises to tell Esther in advance if she is ever to be scheduled for shock treatment. One of Buddy’s other girlfriends, Joan Gilling, who Esther knows, also checks into the hospital. Dr Nolan refuses to let Esther have visitation rights when she realizes that the visits halt Esther’s progress, especially after she has a good reaction to insulin treatment.

Dr Nolan moves Esther to the Belsize wing where she has greater privileges, and where Joan is too. Esther goes through a series of shock treatments and has to deal with the feeling of betrayal, as Dr Nolan does not keep her promise about telling her about them in advance. Esther then rejects Joan’s friendship when she finds out that Joan is a lesbian and soon afterwards Joan is released from the institution. After obtaining birth control, Esther meets a man called Irwin and decides to let him seduce her, but after having sex she begins to bleed heavily and asks Joan to take her to the hospital. Shortly after this incident Joan returns to the institution. A few days later she goes missing and is found in the woods where she has hanged herself.

Esther prepares to leave the institution in January when her semester starts at college. She knows people will treat her differently, that her mother wants to forget the whole episode as soon as possible and that her depression might not have completely disappeared forever. She feels free again, but not new.

When studying The Bell Jar it is important to look at the narrator’s mental torment, as this is the epicenter of the narrative. This will be done in a first part, where Esther’s entrapment will be identified through her thought process, through the idea of suicide which becomes prominent and through her constant search for identity. As the novel also deals ultimately with escape this will also be studied through the images and the actions which release Esther from her bell jar.

In a second part the theme of the double in The Bell Jar will be studied. It will be identified through Esther’s constant search for a double and through Esther’s portrayals of society, men, and finally through the images of the mother figure.

The Bell Jar has often been described as autobiographical by some and semi-autobiographical by others. This will be studied in a third part where Plath’s personal life in 1953 (the year in which the novel is set) will be compared to the narrative of the novel, through the means of Plath’s personal diaries and her letters. Plath will be compared to Esther and the question of autobiography will be reviewed.

Other novels that deal with similar subjects:

Marge Piercy - Braided Lives

Susanna Kaysen - Girl, Interrupted

Erica Jong - Fear of Flying

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