Monday, 11 February 2013

Approaching Death in 'The Bell Jar'

by Fay Davies

First edition of The Bell Jar, published in 1963
under Sylvia Plath's pseudonym, Victoria Lucas.

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel. It is told from the perspective of one Esther Greenwood and it details her depression, attempted suicide and slow recovery. Plath herself committed suicide 50 years ago today, but I will avoid the temptation to demonstrate the countless parallels the book has with her life. Instead, I want to look at the novel itself and explore the ways that the suicide is foreshadowed; the way that the seeds of death are sown from the outset.
The opening sets a particularly macabre tone: ‘it was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’. Esther looks back to a particular time in her life and it is clear that she associates this time with death. The startling revelation is dropped casually into the middle of the sentence, revealing something about the narrator’s mind, about the things with which she was preoccupied. ‘It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves’. In the very first paragraph she puts herself quite graphically into the shoes of someone being killed. And the references to death do not end here. She goes on to recall ‘the first time I saw a cadaver’, and how it ‘floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast’. Death is not distanced: it is present and it pervades the quotidian in what can only be described as a comical if disturbing image. It becomes, for Esther, an object of fascination. Whether the morbid focus here is a reflection of the narrator’s present outlook, her previous anxieties, or both, we do not know. Clearer, though, is a sense of foreboding; a sense that death may resurge as a vital theme.
The novel’s first sentence is interesting for another reason. It ends ‘…and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’. Aside from the mention of execution, then, it introduces a feeling of disorientation which becomes crucial to Esther’s plight. She is an over-achiever; she has gained a place on a prestigious magazine internship and ‘was supposed to be having the time of my life’. Yet there is something wrong. ‘I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel... I couldn’t get myself to react’. Plath structures the early part of the novel in a way that reflects this stasis, these isolated happenings with no clear direction. It is grouped into chapters yet they seem to have very little pattern to them, and the distinctions between them are vague. Chapter Three, for example, begins with the recollection of a particular event, and then drifts backwards to an earlier event. It is not until some point in Chapter Four that we are back up to where we started, and all of this is punctuated by digressions into the more distant past. Esther recalls a banquet, perhaps, then a restaurant date, then a photoshoot. There are few clues as to where it is all leading and how it will end, except, perhaps, this analogy: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree […] I saw myself sitting at 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’. Esther has a lot going for her, yet is crippled by the variety of opportunity. The future is without shape and appears to hold just one certainty: ‘starving to death’.
Esther’s fear of the future is apparent also in her obsession with the various facets of coming of age. She puts great importance on the loss of virginity: ‘I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t’. She is wary of marriage: ‘So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed’. She is very aware of what she has read in magazines about the various aspects of womanhood, and of what she has been told by her mother and the mother of her boyfriend. These figures represent the prevailing societal ideals of what a woman should be, and clearly Esther views these with ambivalence – even repulsion. An inability to reconcile herself with what she is ‘meant’ to be is a conceivable trigger for depression. A skiing incident which she recalls from her recent past encapsulates an impulse to reject the future and, instead, fly backwards. Despite her inexperience she hurls herself down a slope and breaks a leg; she remembers how she ‘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’. The final destination, death, is likened to being in the womb. It is the reversal of the forward momentum of maturity, and it is oddly comforting.
But maybe it is wrong to say that death is the only certainty. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it comes in the form of a writing course. ‘I was sure I’d find the letter of acceptance waiting on the mail table at home’. It is when she finds that she has been rejected from the course that she loses this ‘bright, safe, bridge over the dull gulf of summer’. The dark outcome suggested by the earlier fig-tree analogy becomes unavoidable: ‘I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth’. Esther is unable to comprehend how life can continue. The future is non-existent.
Now the symptoms of depression truly begin. Now the novel is populated by doctors, by plans of suicide and by the attempt itself. But this should come as no surprise. From the beginning, Plath creates an atmosphere in which death seemed the norm: it invades the mind, the everyday. This is compounded by the way that growing older and choosing a path is made almost impossible. Esther says early in the story: ‘If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell’. The emphasis on Esther’s indecision forms the basis for her despair. It soon becomes clear that death is going to happen, and I would argue that it happens because, in Esther’s mind, nothing else can.

Read Mark Richardson's Sylvia Plath: The Poetry's The Thing

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