Lack of Choices in 1950

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Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963) was first published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, a few weeks before Plath's suicide. It was published under her own name in England in 1966, and not published in the United States until 1971. Much of the novel is based on Plath's life. Her father died when she was eight-years-old and at that time her family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, outside Boston. She attended Smith College, and during the summer of 1953 worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Later that summer Plath suffered from depression, underwent electroconvulsive therapy, attempted suicide, and was subsequently hospitalized. However much the events of The Bell Jar parallel those of Plath's real life, the novel remains a fictionalized autobiography. Plath herself called it a "potboiler," acknowledging that she had employed the techniques of a fiction writer in order to achieve a certain effect and to favor particular interpretations of the events depicted. Rather than read The Bell Jar in terms of the author's biography, we might read it in one of two other ways, as a kind of biography of American culture in the 1950s or as a record of the uses of literature, especially poetry.

One of the most common interpretations of the novel sees Esther Greenwood's life as an example of the difficult position of educated women in America in the 1950s. In her introduction to Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, Linda Wagner notes that The Bell Jar represents the "cultural alienation—and the resulting frustration—of talented women" at that time. Esther struggles with the combined rewards and stigmas of excelling in school, but she is not without humor. "I hated coming downstairs sweaty-handed and curious every Saturday night and having some senior introduce me to her aunt's best friend's son and finding some pale, mushroomy fellow with protruding ears or buck teeth or a bad leg. I didn't think I deserved it. After all, I wasn't crippled in any way, I just studied too hard, I didn't know when to stop."

Esther's intellectualism seems to be a disability to some people, perhaps including Esther herself. She benefits from the prestige associated with regularly dating Buddy Willard and she is much relieved when, just as she considers breaking up with him, he contracts tuberculosis: "I simply told everyone that Buddy had TB and we were practically engaged, and when I stayed in to study on Saturday nights they were extremely kind to me because they thought I was so brave, working the way I did just to hide a broken heart." Diligent study is a substitute for romance, suggesting that the two cannot exist together.

By the same token, marriage and a career appear incompatible to Esther, "I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brain-washed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state." It is this incompatibility which she sarcastically equates with a psychological disorder. "If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days." Even though Esther insists throughout the novel that she intends never to marry, she seems unable to eliminate it altogether as a possibility. She feels hurt by the photograph on Dr. Gordon's desk,...

(This entire section contains 1943 words.)

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by the "hairy, ape-shaped law student from Yale" who tells her she'll be a prude at forty, and by Buddy when he visits her at the psychiatric hospital and wonders who she'll marry now. To Esther's mind, all of these men seem to mock her unmarriageability.

Esther's dissatisfactions may be typical of well-educated American women of her generation. Yet, Esther does not imagine herself as part of a community of women who suffer in the same way. Even in the psychiatric hospital, she distinguishes herself from the other women there. Esther is repulsed by Valerie, who has had part of her brain removed, and intrigued by Miss Norns, the mute, unresponsive patient. She is suspicious of the society women ten years her senior, like Dee Dee and Mrs. Savage who trade private jokes about their husbands. Joan is "the beaming double of a person Esther used to be but from whom she is now estranged. Where Esther is uneasy, Joan "seemed perfectly at home among these women." When Joan later makes a rather tame romantic overture to her, Esther recoils and literally distances herself from Joan by walking out of the room.

Esther's tendency to identify herself in contrast to these other women indicates that this is not a "feminist manifesto," as some critics have claimed it to be. Still, she is clearly affected by a conflict between her ambitions and received roles for women. This conflict is evident in her desire for sexual experience on the one hand and, on the other, a pragmatic understanding of the advantages of chastity. When she gains access to birth control, Esther proudly reflects, "I was my own woman."

Whether or not they view The Bell Jar as a true personal or cultural history, many critics have demonstrated the advantages of reading Plath's poetry alongside her novel. Plath was and is known primarily as a poet, though only one of her several poetry collections was published while she was alive. (All of her poems are included in Collected Poems (1981), for which Plath posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize.) Reading her novel in terms of poetry shows the importance of poetry as a guiding force in the plot and in the structure of the text.

Esther Greenwood is not yet a poet, and seems to be less well-read than her creator, Sylvia Plath. When Buddy Willard mentions that he has recently discovered the work of a doctor-poet and of a "famous dead Russian short-story writer who had been a doctor too," Esther does not recognize them as William Carlos Williams and Anton Chekhov. She is hardly ignorant, even though she fears others will think her so. For instance, she compares her elite college's liberal requirements for the English major to the stricter traditional requirements of the city college where her mother teaches. Esther worries that "the stupidest person at my mother's college knew more than I did "

Nevertheless, Plath grants to Esther a strong poetic sensibility. For example, though she likes botany, she resists physics for its irreverent attitude toward language: "What I couldn't stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the holes the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr. Manzi's special red chalk." These monstrous forms of words do injury to the great possibilities of language and they appear to bleed on the chalkboard. While the physics professor scratches the board with his formulas, Esther places herself at a safe distance and writes "page after page of villanelles and sonnets." It may be that Esther opposes learning shorthand not only because she sees it as a stereotypically female skill, but because its characters are, like physics formulas, shrunken parodies of poetic language.

Esther shields herself against the pressures she feels with her belief that poetry possesses a special value. One of those pressures is the supposed impracticality of a career as a poet: Buddy Willard claims that a poem is simply "a piece of dust." But Esther silently believes that "People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn't see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep."

She imagines that poetry can work as a kind of temporary cure for emotional distress. However, as her depression worsens, Esther has less and less access to this potential remedy. She envies the unimaginative work of a U.N. translator: "I wished with all my heart I could crawl into her and spend the rest of my life barking out one idiom after another. It mightn't make me any happier, but it would be one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles." Her mother explains to Philomena Guinea that Esther's fear of never writing again is the cause of her illness. But if her writing is the cause, it is not part of the cure. Esther makes no mention of writing or of literature during her stay in the psychiatric ward. The first person Esther encounters at the private hospital is Valerie, who is reading Vogue. Other than magazines, the only texts she mentions are Joan's physics books, and the nurses quickly remove them.

Though poetry disappears from the story (or the thematic level) of the text, it may remain concealed in the novel's structure. The plot organization of The Bell Jar has been described as episodic, that is, as consisting of associated episodes or scenes. We might also call the structure of the novel "stanzaic," or organized like the stanzas or paragraphs of a poem. The last chapter, for example, is divided into six sections depicting six different kinds of farewells. Her encounters with Dr. Nolan, Valerie, Buddy, Irwm, Joan, and the doctors' board are variations on the theme of departure. These interrelated scenes reinforce the difficulty and the importance of leave-taking for Esther. Together they compose a kind of poem, the final word on her experiences of the previous months.

The story ends suspended at this significant moment before Esther exits the hospital. In the last scene we see her enter the conference room, guided inside by the "eyes and faces" of the doctors gathered there. These points of reference may symbolize stars, which can also provide direction and guidance. Plath uses a star metaphor in the introduction she wrote as Guest Managing Editor of the August 1953 college issue of Mademoiselle, "We're stargazers this season ... From our favorite fields, stars of the first magnitude shed a bright influence on our plans for jobs and futures. Although horoscopes for our ultimate orbits aren't yet in, we Guest Eds. are counting on a favorable forecast with this send-off from Mlle., the star of the campus."

Despite Plath's rather syrupy language, her metaphor connects stars and her future literary career. In a late poem called "Words" (1963), Plath more directly compares words to stars:

Years later I
Encounter them on the road—
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hooftaps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

Plath suggests that poetry's words can lose some of their flavor and become dry, or run wild like horses without riders. Although the poet cannot control the words as she would like, the stars reflected in a pool of water provide some order and direction for her life. But while the stars are her guide, they remain "fixed" and silent at the bottom of a pool. By contrast, words tirelessly and noisily trot over the earth. Both words and stars can direct the poet to a certain extent, but neither is entirely reliable. The poet of "Words" and Esther Greenwood are not identical people. Yet they both are drawn to the language of poetry in order to define themselves. And both discover that there are times when even poetic words fail them.

Source: Jeanmne Johnson, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997.
Johnson is a doctoral candidate at Yale University.

Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman

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One of the most misunderstood of contemporary novels, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is in structure and intent a highly conventional bildungsroman. Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the center of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."

Plath signals the important change of location at the opening of The Bell Jar. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York ... New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat." Displaced, misled by the morning freshness, Greenwood describes a sterile, inimical setting for her descent into, and exploration of, a hell both personal and communal. Readers [such as Denis Donoghue in "You could say she had a calling for Death," Saul Maloff in "Waiting for the Voice to Crack," and Charles Molesworth in "Again, Sylvia Plath"] have often stressed the analogy between Greenwood and the Rosenbergs—and sometimes lamented the inappropriateness of Plath's comparing her personal angst with their actual execution—but in this opening description, the Rosenberg execution is just one of the threatening elements present in the New York context. It is symptomatic of the "foreign" country's hostility, shown in a myriad of ways throughout the novel.

In The Bell Jar, as in the traditional bildungsroman, the character's escape to a city images the opportunity to find self as well as truths about life. Such characters as Pip, Paul Morel, and Jude Fawley idealize the city as a center of learning and experience, and think that once they have relocated themselves, their lives will change dramatically. As Buckley points out, however, the city is often ambivalent: "the city, which seems to promise infinite variety and newness, all too often brings a disenchantment more alarming and decisive than any dissatisfaction with the narrowness of provincial life." For Esther Greenwood, quiet Smith student almost delirious with the opportunity to go to New York and work for Mademoiselle for a month, the disappointment of her New York experience is cataclysmic. Rather than shape her life, it nearly ends it; and Plath structures the novel to show the process of disenchantment in rapid acceleration.

The novel opens in the midst of Greenwood's month in New York, although she tells the story in flashbacks; and for the first half of the book—ten of its twenty chapters—attention remains there, or on past experiences that are germane to the New York experiences. Greenwood recounts living with the other eleven girls on the Mademoiselle board at the Amazon Hotel, doing assignments for the tough fiction editor Jay Cee, going to lunches and dances, buying clothes, dating men very unlike the fellows she had known at college, and sorting through lifestyles like Doreen's which shock, bewilder, and yet fascinate her. Events as predictably mundane as these are hardly the stuff of exciting fiction but Plath has given them an unexpected drama because of the order in which they appear. The Bell Jar is plotted to establish two primary themes: that of Greenwood's developing identity, or lack of it; and that of her battle against submission to the authority of both older people and, more pertinently, of men. The second theme is sometimes absorbed by the first but Plath uses enough imagery of sexual conquest that it comes to have an almost equal importance. For a woman of the 1950s, finding an identity other than that of sweetheart, girlfriend, and wife and mother was a major achievement.

Greenwood's search for identity is described through a series of episodes that involve possible role models. Doreen, the Southern woman whose rebelliousness fascinates Esther, knows exactly what she will do with her time in New York. The first scene in the novel is Doreen's finding the macho Lenny Shepherd, disc jockey and playboy par excellence. Attracted by Doreen's "decadence," Esther goes along with the pair until the sexual jitterbug scene ends with Doreen's melon-like breasts flying out of her dress after she has bitten Lenny's ear lobe. Esther has called herself Elly Higginbottom in this scene, knowing instinctively that she wants to be protected from the kind of knowledge Doreen has. Plath describes Esther as a photo negative, a small black dot, a hole in the ground; and when she walks the 48 blocks home to the Amazon in panic, she sees no one recognizable in the mirror. Some Chinese woman, she thinks, "wrinkled and used up," and, later, "the reflection in a ball of dentist's mercury." Purging herself in a hot bath, Greenwood temporarily escapes her own consciousness: "Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don't know them, I have never known them and I am very pure." Unfortunately, when Doreen pounds on her door later that night, drunk and sick, Esther has to return to the real world. Her revulsion is imaged in Doreen's uncontrollable vomit.

The second "story" of the New York experience is the ptomaine poisoning of all the girls except Doreen after the Ladies' Day magazine luncheon. Plath's vignette of Jay Cee is imbedded in this account; the editor's great disappointment in Greenwood (because she has no motivation, no direction) serves to make Esther more depressed. As she comes near death from the poisoning, she also assesses the female role models available to her: her own mother, who urges her to learn shorthand; the older writer Philomena Guinea, who has befriended her but prescriptively; and Jay Cee, by now an admonitory figure. Although Esther feels purged and holy and ready for a new life after her ordeal, she cannot rid herself of the feeling of betrayal. No sooner had she realized Jay Cee ("I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I'd know what to do") than she had disappointed her. The development of the novel itself illustrates the kind of irony Esther had employed in the preface, with the lament:

I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America...

Look what can happen in this country, they'd say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can't afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.

Only I wasn't steering anything, not even myself.

Plath's handling of these early episodes makes clear Greenwood's very real confusion about her direction. As Buckley has pointed out, the apparent conflict with parent or location in the bildungsroman is secondary to the real conflict, which remains "personal in origin; the problem lies with the hero himself (or herself).

Esther Greenwood's struggle to know herself, to be self-motivated, to become a writer as she has always dreamed is effectively presented through Plath's comparatively fragmented structure. As Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in 1981 [in The Adolescent Idea, Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination] about literature of the adolescent, the adolescent character has no self to discover. The process is not one of discovering a persona already there but rather creating a persona. Unlike Esther, then, perhaps we should not be disturbed that the face in her mirror is mutable. We must recognize with sympathy, however, that she carries the weight of having to maintain a number of often conflicting identities—the obliging daughter and the ungrateful woman, the successful writer and the immature student, the virginal girlfriend and the worldly lover. In its structure, The Bell Jar shows how closely these strands are interwoven.

Source: Linda W. Wagner, "Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 12, No 1, February, 1986, pp. 55-68.

Waiting for the Voice to Crack

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Apparent reasons for the eight-year delay in importing The Bell Jar from England (publication there, 1963) are not in themselves convincing. The pseudonym of Victoria Lucas was a hedge, but against what? Sylvia Plath made no secret of her authorship. Her suicide followed publication by a month, but such things have never stopped the wheels of industry from turning. She was a "property" after all, certainly following the publication of Ariel in 1966. Nor can we take seriously her having referred to it as a "potboiler" and therefore to be kept separate from her serious work: the oldest and most transparent of all writers' dodges. All the evidence argues against it. As early as 1957 she had written a draft of the novel; she completed the final version on a Eugene Saxton Fund fellowship and felt toward its terms an urgent sense of commitment and obligation; the painstaking quality of the writing—but above all, its subject: her own pain and sickness, treated with literal fidelity, a journal done up as a novel, manifestly re-experienced, and not from any great distance of glowing health. One of her motives was the familiar one of getting her own back, to (as her heroine says) "fix a lot of people"—among others of smaller significance, to lay the ghost of her father, and tell the world she hated her mother (the exact words of her protagonist-surrogate, spoken to her psychiatrist in a key passage).

Only the names were changed, nothing else as much as a novel can be, it was recorded rather than imagined. Evidently she panicked as publication drew near and displayed more than the usual terror of reviewers, who were on the whole generous and patronizing in a chuckling avuncular way, though she misread their intention, as toward the end, one supposes, she misread everything. Her last awful year was marked by a miscarriage, an appendectomy, the birth of her second child, as well as a series of plaguing minor illnesses, to say nothing of separation from her husband. According to her mother, Mrs. Aurelia Plath, whose 1970 letter to her daughter's Harper & Row editor is included in a "Biographical Note" appended to the novel, Miss Plath told her brother that the book must in no circumstances be published in the U.S.

Mrs. Plath's letter is a noteworthy document, and an oddly touching one. She pleads her case by telling the editor she knows no pleas will help, though publication here will cause "suffering" in the lives of several persons whom Sylvia loved and who had "given freely of time, thought, affection, and in one case, financial help during those agonizing six months of breakdown in 1953." To them, the book as it stands in itself "represents the basest ingratitude." But, Mrs. Plath argues, her daughter didn't mean for the book to stand alone, she herself told her mother in 1962 that she'd merely "thrown together events from my own life, fictionalizing to add color," a "potboiler" to show "how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown ... to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar." Her second novel, she assured her mother, "will show that same world as seen through the eyes of health." Ingratitude was "not the basis of Sylvia's personality"; the second novel, presumably, would have been one long, ingratiating, fictionalized thank you note to the world. Of course the publisher is right to publish; but since the persons who may be slightly scorched are still alive, why eight years?

The novel itself is no firebrand. It's a slight, charming, sometimes funny and mildly witty, at moments tolerably harrowing "first" novel, just the sort of clever book a Smith summa cum laude (which she was) might have written if she weren't given to literary airs. From the beginning our expectations of scandal and startling revelation are disappointed by a modesty of scale and ambition and a jaunty temperateness of tone. The voice is straight out of the 1950's: politely disenchanted, wholesome, yes, wholesome, but never cloying, immediately attractive, nicely confused by it all, incorrigibly truth-telling; in short, the kind of kid we liked then, the best product of our best schools. The hand of Salinger lay heavy on her.

But this is 1971 and we read her analyst, too wily to be deceived by that decent, smiling, well-scrubbed coed who so wants to be liked and admired. We look for the slips and wait for the voice to crack. We want the bad, the worst news; that's what we're here for, to be made happy by horror, not to be amused by girlish chatter. Our interests are clinical and prurient. A hard case, she confounds us. She never raises her voice. To control it, she stays very close to the line of her life in her twentieth year, telling rather than evoking the memorable events; more bemused than aghast. That year she came down to New York from Smith one summer month to work as an apprenticeeditor for Mademoiselle (here Ladies Day ) for its college issue, a reward for being a good, straight-A girl and promising young writer; and had exactly the prescribed kind of time, meeting people and going places, eating out and dressing up, shopping and sightseeing, and thinking maybe it was about time she got laid. The closest she came to it was sleeping chastely, quite dressed and untouched, beside an inscrutable UN simultaneous translator. Throughout, the tone is prevailingly unruffled, matter-of-fact, humorously woebegone.

Prevailingly, but not quite. What should have been exciting—she was a small-town girl living in NYC for the first time on her own—was dreary, trivial, flat. She was beginning to doubt herself, her talent, her prospects. Mysteriously, as if from another work, period of life, region of the mind, images and memories startlingly appear, and just as quickly vanish; colors and events we recognize from the late poems: darkness and blackness; the world perceived as misshapen and ominous; her father (the figure of her marvelous poem "Daddy") remembered with love and fury, the source of her last "pure" happiness at the age of nine before he perversely left her bereft one day by cruelly dying; foetuses and blood, fever and sickness, the obsession with purity and the grotesque burden of her body of feeling itself. In the poems the pressure is terrific; she screams her pain, in a final effort to contain it; yet here it is duly noted, set down serially, linearly, as possibly interesting to those in the business of making connections, scrupulously recorded as in a printed clinical questionnaire by a straight-A girl in the habit of carefully completing forms. When she sees the dumb, staring "goggle-eyed head lines" monstrously proclaiming the execution of the Rosenbergs, she "couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along the nerves" and concludes flatly, "I thought it must be the worst thing in the world." A silent china-white telephone sits like a "death's head." Her hometown boyfriend, a medical student, takes her to see cadavers at the morgue and a foetus with a "little piggy smile" that reminds her of Eisenhower; and then, to round things off, they go to watch a child-birth. The woman on the "awful torture-table, with these metal stirrups sticking up in midair" seems to her "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 wooing noise" and "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." A silly simpering girl, a hat-designer idiotically pleased at the good news of the Rosenbergs' execution, reveals a "dybbuk" beneath her plump, bland exterior. But these darker notes do not accumulate to thematic denisity save in retrospect; they seem accidental dissonances, slips of the tongue.

Even the breakdown, when it comes, is generally muted, seeming from the outside as much slothfulness as madness, the obligatory junior-year interlude. The break is quantitative: tones are darker, the world somewhat more distorted and remote, the voice, almost never breezy now, is more than disaffected—it can become nasty, a trifle bitchy, even cruel, streaked with violence. She makes some gestures toward suicide—as much amusing as they are frightening; and then though she very nearly brings it off, we almost can't bring ourselves to believe it, so theatrically staged is the scene. Yet even then, after breakdown and hospitalization, electroshock and insulin, she composes the book's funniest, most charming scene—of her incidental, much-delayed defloration; and in the knowledge of its appalling consequences. The chap, accidentally encountered on the steps of the Widener (where else?) is, she carefully notes, a 26-year-old full professor of Mathematics at Harvard, name of Irwin; and ugly. Him she elects to "seduce"; and after the fastest such episode in fiction, she isn't even sure it happened at all. Wanting more direct evidence, she can only infer it from her massive hemorrhaging. Concluding now that, no longer a virgin, she has put behind her childish things, she lies down and, bleeding profusely, writes: "I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition." At the end, the tone is ambiguous but not despairing, she has been readmitted to Smith, where out of old habit she will keep getting nothing but A's; the bell jar has descended once, and may again.

She laid out the elements of her life, one after the other, and left to the late poems the necessary work of imagining and creating it. It is for this reason that we feel in the book an absence of weight and complexity sufficient to the subject.

On balance, The Bell Jar, good as it is, must be counted part of Sylvia Plath's juvenilia, along with most of the poems of her first volume; though in the novel as in a few of the early poems she foretells the last voice she was ever to command.

Source: Saul Maloff, "Waiting for the Voice to Crack," in The New Republic, Vol. 164, No. 2941, May 8, 1971, pp. 33-35.


Critical Overview