April 11, 1971Esther came back like a retreaded tire
By ROBERT SCHOLES
THE BELL JAR
By Sylvia Plath.
he Bell Jar" is a novel about the events of Sylvia Plath's 20th year: about how she tried to die, and how they stuck her together with glue. It is a fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems--the kind of book Salinger's Franny might have written about herself 10 years later, if she had spent those 10 years in Hell. It is very much a story of the fifties, but written in the early sixties, and now, after being effectively suppressed in this country for eight years, published in the seventies.
F. Scott Fitzgerald used to claim that he wrote with "the authority of failure," and he did. It was a source of power in his later work. But the authority of failure is but a pale shadow of the authority of suicide, as we feel it in "Ariel" and in "The Bell Jar." This is not so much because Sylvia Plath, in taking her own life, gave her readers a certain ghoulish interest they could not bring to most poems and novels, though this is no doubt partly true. It is because she knew that she was "Lady Lazarus." Her works do not only come to us posthumously. They were written posthumously. Between suicides. She wrote her novel and her "Ariel" poems feverishly, like a person "stuck together with glue" and aware that the glue was melting. Should we be grateful for such things? Can we accept the price she paid for what she has given us? Is dying really an art?
There are no easy answers for such questions, maybe no answers at all. We are all dying, of course, banker and bum alike, spending our limited allotment of days, hours and minutes at the same rate. But we don't like to think about it. And those men and women who take the matter into their own hands, and spend all at once with prodigal disdain, seem frighteningly different from you and me. Sylvia Plath is one of those others, and to them our gratitude and our dismay are equally impertinent. When an oracle speaks it is not for us to say thanks but to attend to the message.
"The Bell Jar" is about the way this country was in the nineteen-fifties and about the way it is to lose one's grip on sanity and recover it again. it is easy to say (and it is said too often) that insanity is the only sane reaction to the America of the past two decades. And it is also said frequently (especially by R. D. Laing and his followers) that the only thing to do about madness is relax and enjoy it. But neither of these "clever" responses to her situation occur to Esther Greenwood, who is the narrator and central character in this novel.
To Esther, madness is the descent of a stifling bell jar over her head. In this state, she says, "wherever I sat...I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my sour air." And she adds, "To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream." Which is not to say that Esther believes the world outside the asylum is full of people living an authentic existence. She asks, "What was there about us, in Belsize, 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."
The world in which the events of this novel take place is a world bounded by the cold war on one side and the sexual war on the other. We follow Esther Greenwood's personal life from her summer job in New York with "Ladies' Day" magazine, back through her days at New England's largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tire: "patched, retreaded, and approved for the road."
But this personal life is delicately related to larger events--especially the execution of the Rosenbergs, whose impending death by electrocution is introduced in the stunning first paragraph of the book. Ironically, that same electrical power which destroys the Rosenbergs, restores Esther to life. It is shock therapy which finally lifts the bell jar and enables Esther to breathe freely once again. Passing through death she is reborn. This novel is not political or historical in any narrow sense, but in looking at the madness of the world and the world of madness it forces us to consider the great question posed by all truly realistic fiction: What is reality and how can it be confronted?
In "The Bell Jar," Sylvia Plath has used superbly the most important technical device of realism--what the Russian critic Shklovsky called "defamiliarization." True realism defamiliarizes our world so that it emerges from the dust of habitual acceptance and becomes visible once again. This is quite the opposite of that comforting false realism that presents the world in terms of clichès that we are all too ready to accept.
Sylvia Plath's technique of defamiliarization ranges from tiny verbal witticisms that bite, to images that they are deeply troubling. When she calls the hotel for women that Esther inhabits in New York the "Amazon," she is not merely enjoying the closeness of the sound of that word to "Barbizon," she is forcing us to rethink the entire concept of a hotel for women: "Mostly girls of my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure that their daughters would be living where men couldn't get at them and deceive them." And she is announcing a major theme in her work, the hostility between men and women.
With Esther Greenwood this hostility takes the form of obsessive attempts to get herself liberated from a virginity she finds oppressive, by a masculinity she finds hideous. When her medical-student boy friend suggests that they play a round of the traditional children's game--I'll show you mine if you show me yours--she looks at his naked maleness and reacts this way: "The only thing I could think of was a turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed." This is defamiliarization with a vengeance. The image catches up all cocky masculine pride of flesh and reduces it to the level of giblets. It sees the inexorable link between generation and death and makes us see it too, because the image is so fitting. All flesh comes from this--and comes to this.
In the face of such cosmic disgust, psychological explanations like "penis-envy" seem pitifully inadequate. Esther Greenwood is not a woman who wants to be a man but a human being who cannot avoid seeing that the price we pay for life is death. Sexual differentiation itself is only a metaphor for human incompletion. The battle of the sexes is, after all, a civil war.
Esther Greenwood's account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing. It makes for a novel such as Dorothy Parker might have written if she had not belonged to a generation infected with the relentless frivolity of the college- humor magazine. The brittle humor of that early generation is reincarnated in "The Bell Jar," but raised to a more serious level because it is recognized as a resource of hysteria. Why, then, has this extraordinary work not appeared in the United States until eight years after its appearance in England?
This story is partly told in the useful biographical note that has been written for the American edition by Lois Ames. The novel was initially rejected by its American publisher and when, after its success in England, Harper & Row sought to publish it, they were refused permission by the family. Sylvia Plath's mother has insisted that her daughter thought of the book as a "pot-boiler" and did not want it published in the United States. And Mrs. Plath herself felt that the book presented ungrateful caricatures of people who had tried to help her daughter. These sentiments are understandable. But a book published in England cannot be kept away from the United States. Already, the student underground has been smuggling copies from abroad into the country. Literature will out. And "The Bell Jar" is not a pot-boiler, nor a series of ungrateful caricatures: it is literature. It is finding its audience, and will hold it.
The Harper & Row edition is overdue, but very welcome and handsomely done. It has one of the best jacket designs (by Amy Isbey Duevell) I have ever seen, and it includes reproductions of eight pen-and-ink drawings by Sylvia Plath. The drawings are landscapes and still lifes, caught by a meticulous draftsman, who understands almost too well what it means to work in a medium where black is the only color.
Robert Scholes teaches English at Brown University. He is the author of "The Fabulators" and other studies of modern fiction.
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Any analysis of The Bell Jar is complicated by the fact that its story is a thinly disguised version of Sylvia Plath’s own breakdown and suicide attempt, which took place when she was twenty. The novel has a positive ending: Freed from her obsessions and her virginity as well, Esther Greenwood is ready to return to the world, play an adult’s part, marry, and bear the responsibilities of parenthood. Plath, however, committed suicide not long after the novel was first published in England. It is therefore tempting to graft Plath’s later story onto Esther’s, to see Esther Greenwood as someone who does not really understand the roots of her illness and is deluded as to the success of her healing. Plath saw her novel as the story of a survivor and intended to write a sequel that would show “that same world as seen through the eyes of health.”
The arguable issue of the novel’s outcome set aside, The Bell Jar leaves plenty to discuss. At least part of Esther’s discomfort comes from the limitations of her society, which had only a few areas women could comfortably enter, nearly all of which required submissiveness to men. Everywhere Esther looks, she sees women in supporting roles, never as lead players. She sees Buddy Willard’s mother, college educated, spending her life cleaning. She sees Dodo Conway, who seems ecstatic about bringing child after child into the world. She sees her own widowed mother, eking out a living by...
(The entire section is 574 words.)