`A Ritual for Being Born Twice': Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
`A Ritual for Being Born Twice': Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar,
Now that Sylvia Plath has become the darling of those very ladies' magazines that she satirized so mercilessly in The Bell Jar, critics have begun to question her claims to literary eminence. Irving Howe, for example, in ["Sylvia Plath: A Partial Disagreement"], a recent reconsideration of Sylvia Plath's poetry, asks, "what illumination -- moral, psychological, social -- can be provided of ... the general human condition by a writer so deeply rooted in the extremity of her plight? Suicide is an eternal possibility of our life and therefore always interesting; but what is the relation between a sensibility so deeply captive to the idea of suicide and the claims and possibilities of human existence in general?"
These are by no means easy questions to answer, especially in the case of The Bell Jar, which was, after all, originally published under a pseudonym because Sylvia Plath herself regarded it as an "autobiographical apprenticework," a confession which, so she told A. Alvarez, she had to write in order to free herself from the past. The novel's enormous popularity, it would seem, has less to do with any artistic merits it may have than with its inherently titillating subject matter. As the dust jacket of the Harper edition so melodramatically puts it, "this extraordinary work chronicles the crackup of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, successful -- but slowly going under, and maybe for the last time." (pp. 507-08)
I do not think, in short, that subject matter alone can account for The Bell Jar's popular appeal. The novel's most enthusiastic admirers, after all, have been the young, who tend to take health, whether physical or mental, enormously for granted, and whose preoccupations, a decade after The Bell Jar was written and two decades after the period with which it deals, are far removed from the fashion world of the Mademoiselle College Board, the Barbizon Hotel for Women, the Yale Junior Prom, or even the particular conditions under which shock therapy is likely to benefit the schizophrenic. Yet, although it deals with the now hopelessly anachronistic college world of proms and petting, The Bell Jar has become for the young of the early seventies what Catcher in the Rye was to their counterparts of the fifties: the archetypal novel that mirrors, in however distorted a form, their own personal experience, their sense of what Irving Howe calls "the general human condition." (p. 508)
In The Divided Self, R. D. Laing gives this description of the split between inner self and outer behavior that characterizes the schizoid personality: "The `inner self' is occupied in phantasy and observation. It observes the processes of perception and action. Experience does not impinge ... directly on this self, and the individual's acts are the provinces of a false-self system." The condition Laing describes is precisely that of Esther at the beginning of the novel. For example, when Jay Cee, the Ladies' Day editor, asks Esther, "What do you have in mind after you graduate?" Esther's inner self observes her own external response with strange detachment: "`I don't really know,' I heard myself say.... It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that's been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham" (italics mine). In a similarly detached way, Esther listens to the words of Elly Higginbottom, the name she has suddenly and inexplicably adopted in order to cope with the stranger who has picked her up on Times Square. But while Elly prattles on, Esther's real self becomes "a small dot" and finally "a hole in the ground."
If we take the division of Esther's self as the motive or starting point of the novel's plot, the central action of The Bell Jar may be described as the attempt to heal the fracture between inner self and false-self system so that a real and viable identity can come into existence. But because, as Laing reminds us, "everyone in some measure wears a mask," Esther's experience differs from that of so-called "normal" girls in degree rather than in kind. It is simply a stylized or heightened version of the young American girl's quest to forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her to be.
The dust jacket image of Esther as the brilliant, beautiful, successful girl who is somehow "going under" is, to begin with, wholly misleading. The Esther others see is, from the very first page of the novel, an elaborate contrivance, an empty shell: the fashionable Smith girl with her patent leather bag and matching pumps, the poised guest editor, brainy but no bookworm, equally at home on the dance floor or behind the typewriter. The novel's flashbacks make clear that Esther has always played those roles others have wanted her to play. For her mother, she has been the perfect good girl, "trained at a very early age and ... no trouble whatsoever. [It is fascinating to compare this reference to Esther's infancy with the account given by the mother of "Julie," the chronic schizophrenic studied in the final chapter of Divided Self: "Julie was never a demanding baby. She was weaned without difficulty. Her mother had no bother with her from the day she took off nappies completely when she was fifteen months old. She was never `a trouble'."]. For Mr. Manzi, her physics professor, she is the ideal student, even though she secretly loathes the "hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas" with which he covers the blackboard. For Buddy Willard, her one serious boyfriend, she is all sweetness and acquiescence. When, for example, Buddy disparages her literary aspirations with the profound remark that a poem is really only "a piece of dust," Esther masks her outrage and replies humbly, "I guess so." Or when, after their first kiss, Buddy says admiringly, "I guess you go out with a lot of boys," Esther, falling in line with his image of her as Popular Girl on Campus, answers, "Well, I guess I do." Even when Buddy has the ridiculous idea that it is time for the virginal Esther to "see a man" and suggests that he disrobe for her inspection, she answers, "Well, all right, I guess so." And the more the false self responds in this contrived and artificial way, the more Esther's inner self nurtures a hatred for Buddy.
The scenes in the present which lead up to Esther's breakdown reveal the same pattern. For Doreen, Esther wears the mask of tough cookie, willing to be picked up by strangers on downtown street corners. For Betsy from the Middle West, she is the fun girl who likes fur shows. For Constantin, the simultaneous interpreter at the UN, she is a no-nonsense type, preparing for a career as war correspondent. Perhaps the final action committed by Esther's external self is the terrible forced smile she bestows on the Ladies' Day photographers ..., a smile that suddenly dissolves in tears. Here the false-self system finally crumbles, and the old Esther must die before she can be reborn as a human being.
Recurrent mirror and light images measure Esther's descent into the stale air beneath the bell jar. In the first chapter, when Esther returns from Lenny's apartment and enters the mirrored elevator of the Amazon Hotel, she notices "a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked." As the self becomes increasingly disembodied, the reflection in the mirror gradually becomes a stranger. Having symbolically killed her false self by throwing her clothes to the winds from the hotel rooftop, Esther rides home on the train to the Boston suburbs and notes that "The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian." But the "two diagonal lines of dried blood" on her cheeks do not perturb her, for her body no longer seems real. Appearances do not count -- Esther no longer washes or changes clothes or puts on make-up -- and yet she is constantly afraid of being recognized by others. "In a world full of dangers," writes Laing, "to be a potentially seeable object is to be constantly exposed to danger.... The obvious defence against such a danger is to make oneself invisible in one way or another." Thus Esther, hiding behind the bedroom shutters, feels Dodo Conway's "gaze pierce through the white clapboard and pink wallpaper roses and uncover me"; she finds the early morning light so oppressive that she crawls beneath the mattress to escape it, but it seems as if "the mattress was not heavy enough," and, after twenty-one sleepless nights, Esther thinks that "the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow." Only by returning to the womb in the shape of the basement crawl space at her mother's house and then gulping down a bottle of sleeping pills, does she hope to find the "dark ... thick as velvet," which is the darkness of death.
Esther's body is recalled to life fairly easily, but the self that emerges from her suicide attempt is hopelessly disembodied. When she looks into the mirror the hospital nurse reluctantly brings her, Esther thinks, "It wasn't a mirror at all, but a picture. You couldn't tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person's face was purple.... The most startling thing about the face was its supernatural conglomeration of bright colors." It is only when she smiles at this funny face, and "the mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin," that Esther is reminded of her identity and sends the mirror crashing to the floor. It will take a long time to pick up the pieces.
But why is Esther's inner self so precarious, so disembodied in the first place? Why must she invent such an elaborate set of masks with which to face the world? To label Esther as "schizophrenic" and leave it at that does not take us very far. For Sylvia Plath's focus in The Bell Jar is not on mental illness per se, but on the relationship of Esther's private psychosis to her larger social situation. Indeed, her dilemma seems to have a great deal to do with being a woman in a society whose guidelines for women she can neither accept nor reject. It is beautifully ironic that Sylvia Plath, who never heard of Women's Liberation ... has written one of the most acute analyses of the feminist problem that we have in contemporary fiction. What makes The Bell Jar so moving -- and often so marvelously funny -- is that the heroine is just as innocent as she is frighteningly perceptive. Far from rejecting the stereotyped world which she inhabits -- a world whose madness often seems much more intense than Esther's own -- she is determined to conquer it. Fulfillment, the novel implies, must come here or not at all; there is no better world around the corner or across the ocean. Thus Esther's quest for identity centers around her repeated attempts -- sometimes funny, but always painful -- to find both a female model whom she can emulate and a man whom she need not despise. (pp. 508-12)
Prior to her summer in New York, Esther's world has been safely circumscribed: like a racehorse, she has been "running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another" for as long as she can remember. Now for the first time, she is presented with real alternatives. What does it mean to be a woman, she wonders, and which of the female roles she has studied by observing those around her should she play? Esther is particularly aware of this problem because the person who should be her model -- her mother -- cannot help her. Characterized in only a few brief flashes, Mrs. Greenwood is a terrifying presence in the novel, and one can hardly be surprised that Sylvia Plath's mother, recognizing herself in the portrait, tried to suppress the book's publication. [In her biographical note on The Bell Jar, Lois Ames cites a letter that Aurelia Plath wrote to Harper & Row in 1970: "Practically every character in The Bell Jar represents someone -- often in caricature -- whom Sylvia loved; each person had given freely of time, thought, affection, and, in one case, financial help during those agonizing six months of breakdown in 1953.... As this book stands by itself, it represents the basest ingratitude. That was not the basis of Sylvia's personality.... " Here Mrs. Plath unintentionally reveals that, precisely like the mother in the novel, she could only regard her daughter's mental illness as an insult to herself. In view of Sylvia Plath's subsequent suicide, it seems strangely irrelevant to talk of her "basest ingratitude."] Here is Esther's first reference to her mother:
My own mother wasn't much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn't trust life insurance salesmen. She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I'd have a practical skill as well as a college degree. "Even the apostles were tentmakers," she'd say. "They had to live, just the way we do."The image is one of a hopelessly rigid, strong-willed, loveless person who has survived the battle of life only by reducing it to neat little proverbs and formulas. When her daughter becomes so overtly psychotic that she can neither eat, sleep, nor wash herself, this mother reasons with her sweetly and blandly. When Esther refuses to return to the frightening Dr. Gordon, her first psychiatrist, her mother replies triumphantly, "I knew you'd decide to be all right again." At the end of the novel, when Esther contemplates her impending return to the world outside the asylum walls, she thinks: "My mother's face floated to mind, a pale reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me."
Whether or not this portrait of the mother as uncomprehending martyr is unfair to the real-life Aurelia Plath seems to me totally beside the point. What matters is that her daughter sees her in this light. Given such a mother image, she must clearly find her models elsewhere. But where? In the course of her quest, Esther is attracted by a bewildering variety of female roles: Dodo Conway, Catholic mother of 6&73, whose face is perpetually lit up by a "serene, almost religious smile"; Buddy Willard's mother, professor's wife and leading citizen, whose words of wisdom are regularly quoted by her brainwashed and adoring son; Doreen, the Southern blonde sex kitten who always knows how to get her man; Betsy, innocently happy and uncomplicated Midwestern fashion model; Jody, loyal friend, "practical and a sociology major," who instinctively knows how to spice up scrambled eggs; Philomena Guinea, best-selling novelist, whose endowed scholarship Esther holds at college; and finally, Jay Cee, the successful editor who "knew all the quality writers in the business." Even a Russian girl translator, whom Esther glimpses only briefly at the UN, becomes an object of envy: "I wished with all my heart I could crawl into her and spend the rest of my life barking out one idiom after another ...."
But although she envies Dodo's placid contentment, Jay Cee's cleverness, and Betsy's innocence, Esther quickly discovers that each of these women is, despite her particular gift or talent, essentially a flawed human being. Doreen's intrinsic vulgarity and triviality are symbolized by her fluffy cotton candy blonde hair, which is, on close inspection, dark at the roots. Eternally pregnant Dodo is little more than a mindless misshapen animal. Refined and cultured Mrs. Willard lets her husband walk all over her as if she were one of the wool mats she makes as a hobby. Philomena Guinea's novels turn out to be endless soap operas, "crammed ... with long suspenseful questions" like "`Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her past?' wondered Hector feverishly." Jay Cee is a walking time clock, devouring manuscripts with mechanical regularity and reserving her emotional commitment for her potted plants. Betsy is "Pollyanna Cowgirl"; the Russian translator is no more than a "little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles"; and even Jody, the truly "nice" girl, seems to have a touch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in her when she plots with Mrs. Greenwood to distract Esther from her illness by taking her along on a double date.
It seems, in short, all but impossible for a woman to attain what Yeats called Unity of Being. In what I take to be the novel's key passage, Esther, sitting with Constantin "in one of those hushed plush auditoriums in the UN," has a vision of her life branching out like a green fig tree:
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.Esther's symbolic tree, appropriately bearing phallic figs, is the objectification of her central malaise, a malaise that is hardly confined to schizophrenics, however starkly and dramatically Sylvia Plath presents Esther's case. I would guess that every woman who reads this passage has felt, at one time or another, that "choosing one meant losing all the rest," that because female roles are no longer clearly defined, women are confronted by such a bewildering variety of seeming possibilities that choice itself becomes all but impossible.
But Sylvia Plath 's feminism is never militant; Esther's diagnosis of her situation is totally devoid of self-pity or self-importance. Shortly after describing her vision of the fig tree, she beautifully undercuts her own high seriousness. The occasion is dinner in a Russian restaurant with Constantin: "I don't know what I ate, but I felt immensely better after the first mouthful. It occurred to me that my vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to earth might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach." So much, Plath sardonically implies, for the profound insights of the weaker sex!
Like her ambivalence to the women she meets, Esther's response to men is hopelessly divided. On the one hand, she is always looking for the perfect lover; on the other, experience repeatedly tells her that men are, however subtly, exploiters and hypocrites. Here, for example, is Esther observing the process of childbirth under the tutelage of her medical student boyfriend, Buddy Willard:
The woman's stomach stuck up so high I couldn't see her face or the upper part of her body at all. She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs propped in the high stirrups, and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this unhuman whooing noise. Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she'd had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn't know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make he forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again. The head doctor ... kept saying to the woman, "Push down, Mrs. Tomolillo, push down, that's a good girl, push down," and finally through the split, shaven place between her legs, lurid with disinfectant, I saw a dark fuzzy thing appear.It is easy to dismiss Esther's reaction to the delivery as simply "sick"; here is a girl, one can argue, so full of self-loathing and insecurity that she cannot understand the beauty and wonder of a great "natural" event like childbirth. But then, who is it that has always told us of the wonders of childbirth if not men like Doctors Spock, Guttmacher, and the father of natural childbirth, Dr. Grantley Dick Read? Sylvia Plath forces us to forget all the usual cliches about incipient motherhood and to take a good hard look at the birth process itself; her technique is, as Robert Scholes has argued in his excellent review of The Bell Jar, one of defamiliarization. The Russian critic Victor Shklovsky, who coined this term in 1917, held that "art removes objects from the automatism of perception"; its aim is to make "the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object." In this scene, for example, Sylvia Plath describes the delivery as if it were happening for the first time in history. From the point of view of the uninitiated observer, childbirth seems to be a frightening ritual in which a "dark fuzzy thing" finally emerges from "the split shaven place" between the woman's legs. In her state of heightened sensitivity, Esther shares the pain of Mrs. Tomolillo, with her "spider-fat stomach," "ugly, spindly legs propped in high stirrups," and "unhuman whooing noise." Only a man, Esther thinks, could conclude that when the woman "swore and groaned she really didn't know what she was doing." And, after witnessing the "sewing up of the woman's cut with a needle and long thread," Esther wonders, not irrationally, "if there were any other ways to have babies."
While Esther wholly identifies with the woman in labor, Buddy, contemplating the birth from his male point of view, is proud of the expert and efficient treatment his colleagues give the patient. As he and Esther leave the delivery room, she notes his "satisfied expression." And no wonder. For beneath the surface of his charming manners and his evident respect for bright articulate girls, Buddy harbors a cynical contempt for women, a contempt that leads him to play off the virginal Esther against the "dirty" waitress he sleeps with. A staunch believer in the double standard, Buddy accepts as axiomatic his mother's wise words that "What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security," or "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from." It follows that Buddy takes a dim view of woman writers. (pp. 512-17)
Because Esther is, in one sense, an innocent and inexperienced small town girl who drinks out of finger bowls and never knows how much to tip, it takes her some time to realize that "The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket." Typing and shorthand -- her mother's domain -- become the symbols of male oppression: she rejects her mother's practical notion that "an English major who knew shorthand ... would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter." "The trouble was," Esther thinks, "I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters." Naturally, then, Esther cannot love Constantin, the pleasant, polite, but thoroughly conventional UN translator, or Marco, the Latin American woman hater who literally forces her down into the dirt, or Dr. Gordon, the sinister psychiatrist, whose silver-framed family photograph, conspicuously placed on his desk facing the patient, is a tacit reminder that he, at any rate, is a "normal" American male, dwelling in a world of suburban lawns, cute children, and golden retrievers. Esther's final sexual encounter is the most ludicrous of all: having won what she thinks is freedom with the help of birth control, she arranges to have herself seduced by Irwin, the bespectacled young math professor from Harvard, who takes girls to bed as thoughtlessly and mechanically as Jay Cee reads manuscripts. The outcome of this parody seduction is not passion but severe hemorrhage for Esther, a bloody wound emblematic of the spirit in which Irwin has made love to her -- a spirit not of tenderness but of all-out war.
When one considers Irwin's strange unconcern about Esther's hemorrhage, one cannot help wondering who is "saner" -- the girl who learns that losing her virginity is not, after all, a great and thrilling adventure, or the man who, ignoring the pain and fear of the girl he has just deflowered, gallantly kisses her hand and bids her goodnight. Whatever the extent of Esther's congenital predisposition to madness, the mad world she inhabits surely intensifies her condition. R. D. Laing's insistence [in his The Politics of Experience] that "the experience and behavior that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation," may sound extreme but it seems wholly relevant to The Bell Jar.
Take, for example, the superbly rendered scene in which Esther, on the verge of total mental collapse, is persuaded to take a volunteer job at the local hospital by her mother's argument that "the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you." Esther's job is to take around the patients' flowers, but when she notices, not at all unsensibly, that some are "droopy and brown at the edges," she discards the dead flowers and rearranges the bouquets as attractively as possible. Wheeling her trolley into the maternity ward, she finds that her "helpful smile" is greeted by a furious uproar:
"Hey, where's my larkspur?" A large, flabby lady from across the ward raked me with an eagle eye. The sharp-faced blonde bent over the trolley. "Here are my yellow roses," she said, "but they're all mixed up with some lousy iris."By the time the nurse has arrived on the scene to investigate the cause of the commotion, Esther is overcome by panic and bolts, a reaction that seems at least as sane as the righteous indignation of the women in curlers, "chattering like parrots in a parrot house," who occupy the hospital beds. By society's standards, however, Esther's emphasis on the aesthetics of flower arrangement rather than on its economics (the notion that every woman patient is entitled to the flowers bought for her) is dismissed as schizophrenic behavior.
Throughout the novel, Sylvia Plath emphasizes the curious similarity of physical and mental illness as if to say that both are symbolic of a larger condition which is our life today. The Bell Jar opens with the following sentence: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." This reference to electrocution sets the scene for everything that is to come: before the novel is over, Esther herself will know only too well what it feels like to be "burned alive all along your nerves." The terrible electric shock therapy that Dr. Gordon makes her undergo is a frightening counterpart of the Rosenbergs' punishment; "I wondered," Esther thinks as she goes under, "what terrible thing it was that I had done." Even the bare room in which the shock treatment is administered resembles the Rosenbergs' prison cell: the windows are barred, and "everything that opened and shut was fitted with a keyhole so it could be locked up."
From the start, when Esther contemplates the terrible fate of the Rosenbergs, sickness is everywhere around her; it begins when Esther finds the drunken Doreen lying on the floor of the hotel corridor: "A jet of brown vomit flew from her mouth and spread in a large puddle at my feet." Here, Sylvia Plath suggests, is the real picture of the desirable debutante, whose smiling photographs grace the pages of the fashion magazines. A similar deception motif occurs in the account of the banquet given by the Ladies' Day Food Testing kitchens, at which every girl lucky enough to attend gets ptomaine poisoning from the beautiful avocados stuffed with crabmeat. (pp. 517-19)
In the world of The Bell Jar, no one is exempt from illness. Even Buddy Willard, the all-American boy who radiates good health, develops tuberculosis and has to spend a winter in a sanatorium. "TB," he writes Esther, "is like living with a bomb in your lung.... You just lie around very quietly hoping it won't go off." There are interesting parallels between Buddy's physical illness and Esther's mental one. Just as Mr. Willard cannot stand the sight of Buddy's sickness "because he thought all sickness was sickness of the will," so Esther's mother is unable to face the truth that her daughter's illness will not disappear by willing it to stop.... [Both] the TB patient and the mental patient engage in occupational therapy: Buddy makes clay pots while the girls at the asylum play the piano or badminton. "What was there about us, in Belsize," Esther wonders, "so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort."
Sylvia Plath is no silly sentimentalist; she knows quite well that her heroine is different from most college girls, that her bell jar is less fragile, less easy to remove than theirs. But the external or official distinction between madness and sanity, she suggests in her linkage of physical and mental illness, is largely illusory. When, to take the novel's most striking example, Esther breaks her leg skiing, Buddy -- and the world at large -- regard her broken leg as the most normal of accidents. Yet Esther's account of her mental state as she plummets down the slope suggests that she is never closer to insanity than at this particular moment. A novice skier, she suddenly conceives an overwhelming desire to fly off into "the great, gray eye of the sky." Like the ecstatic speaker of Ariel, who longs to make the "Suicidal" leap "Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning," Esther longs for the annihilation of death. "People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly." Yet this suicidal leap earns Esther no more than a plaster cast, whereas her later, not unrelated suicide attempt precipitates her admission to the dangerous ward of the hospital.
The plot of The Bell Jar moves from physical sickness (the ptomaine poisoning) to mental illness and back to the physical, culminating in Esther's hemorrhage. The arrangement of incidents implies that all illness is to be viewed as part of the same spectrum: disease, whether mental or physical, is an index to the human inability to cope with an unlivable situation. For who can master a world where the Testing Kitchens of the leading women's magazine poison all of its guest editors, where a reputable psychiatrist asks a girl, on the verge of suicide, whether there is a WAC station at her college?
But Esther does come back to life. At the end of The Bell Jar, her external situation has not appreciably changed -- she has found neither a lover nor her future vocation -- but now she can view that situation differently. Having passed through death, she learns, with the help of Dr. Nolan, to forge a new identity. It is important to note that Dr. Nolan, the only wholly admirable woman in the novel, is also the only woman whom Esther never longs to imitate or to resemble. The point is that Dr. Nolan serves not as model but as anti-model; she is the instrument whereby Esther learns to be, not some other woman, but herself. The new Esther takes off the mask: she openly rejects Joan's lesbian advances; she can cope with Irwin as well as with Buddy. Best of all, the world of nature, distorted and fragmented in the opening pages of the novel when Esther walks through the "granite canyons" of Manhattan, is no longer inaccessible. Shovelling Buddy's car out of the snow, Esther watches with pleasure as the sun emerges from the clouds: "Pausing in my work to overlook that pristine expanse, I felt the same profound thrill it gives me to see trees and grassland waist-high under flood water -- as if the usual order of the world had shifted slightly, and entered a new phase."
As if the usual order of the world had shifted slightly.... When Esther pauses on the threshold of the room where the hospital board is waiting to pass final sentence on her, she still sees her future as a series of "question marks," but she has learned something very important. Isolation, Sylvia Plath suggests, the terrible isolation Esther feels when, one by one, her props crumble, is paradoxically the result of negating one's own separateness. The hardest thing in the world to do -- and it is especially hard when one is young, female, and highly gifted -- is simply to be oneself. Only when Esther recognizes that she will never be a Jody, a Jay Cee, a Doreen, or a Mrs. Guinea, that she will never marry a Buddy Willard, a Constantin, or a Dr. Gordon, that she wants no lesbian affairs with a Joan or a Dee Dee -- does the bell jar lift, letting Esther once again breath "the circulating air." As a schizophrenic, Esther is, of course, a special case, but her intensity of purpose, her isolation, her suffering, and finally her ability to survive it all with a sense of humor, make her an authentic, indeed an exemplary heroine of the seventies.
When one compares Esther to Carson McCullers' Frankie Addams, the heroine of The Member of the Wedding, written in 1946, the contemporary appeal of The Bell Jar, especially for the young, is readily understood. Both Frankie and Esther are sensitive young girls, isolated from friends and family and unable to express their most deep-seated feelings to anyone. But whereas Frankie "gets over" her difficult tomboy stage as well as her brief incarnation as F. Jasmine, the vamp, and emerges at the end of the novel as a happy high school girl, who can share her new interest in Michelangelo and Tennyson with an ideal close friend, Esther can never forget what her mother so ludicrously calls "a bad dream." On the contrary, she remembers everything:
I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco's diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon's wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a gray skull. Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape.Esther's landscape, with its confusing assortment of cadavers and diamonds, thermometers and beans, is, in heightened form, our landscape. When Ibsen's Nora slammed the door of her doll's house and embarked on a new life, she nobly refused to take with her any of Torvald's property. The New Woman, I would posit, will not let men off that easily. Esther, having undergone emergency treatment for the hemorrhage induced by Irwin's lovemaking, calmly sends him the bill. (pp. 519-22)
Source: Marjorie G. Perloff, "`A Ritual for Being Born Twice': Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 13, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 507-22. Reproduced by permission.
Gale Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism