‘The world itself is a bad dream’

On the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, the cool cynicism and snobbery of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has gone mainstream.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Almost ever since it was published – 50 years ago – The Bell Jar has always been overwhelmed by the biography of its author, Sylvia Plath. Readers’ knowledge that Plath, then 30 years old, gassed herself to death at her London home just two weeks after The Bell Jar made its pseudonymous appearance created the macabre sense that this does not so much portray a ruined life as document one.

Not that The Bell Jar’s narrative helped matters. Telling the tale of a talented 20-year-old writer, Esther Greenwood, who spirals into mental illness and attempts suicide, it almost directly echoed the experiences of Plath’s own 20-year-old self. Like Esther, Plath, too, having suffered depression while outwardly being a youthful literary success, had tried to take her own life. And the more the curious reader hammered through the fictive Esther to reach the factual Plath, the more the correspondences racked up. Both lost their fathers when they were young, both attended East Coast liberal arts colleges before interning on fashion magazines, and both underwent electro-shock therapy to ‘cure’ them of their psychiatric ailment.

And the more the private tragedy of Plath has been allowed to erupt through her public art, the more her art has been solicited to condemn those whom some believe are responsible for Plath’s fate. For many, Plath is a feminist martyr, and her art, with The Bell Jar to the fore, little more than a testament to the torture visited upon her by her unfaithful husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and conformist, patriarchal society in general.

But things are shifting. Today, inevitably, some of that biographical heat has ebbed. The main familial protagonists are either dead or withdrawing. And Plath’s short-ish life, where once it loomed large over her readers, is retreating into the footnoted distance. Now, 50 years on, it is possible finally to see The Bell Jar in its own terms. That is, as art, as fiction, not as evidence for the prosecution of Ted Hughes, or as a document of Plath’s own depression given a literary gloss.

And now, reading The Bell Jar in the clearer light of literature rather than the extra-textual murk of biography, makes it seem, well, quite unexceptional. Yes, the prose is rich in startling, pull-you-up-short imagery – Dr Gordon’s eyelashes, for instance, are like ‘black plastic reeds fringing two green, glacial pools’. Esther’s narratorial voice is compelling, alternating between scabrous commentary and profound melancholy. And the humour is as darkly absurd as Esther’s inability to hang herself in a modern, low-ceilinged house. And yet without the Plath life-story sitting alongside it, marking it out with an especial integrity, The Bell Jar starts to show its family likeness. I’m thinking here of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

That is, The Bell Jar’s Esther belongs to the empyrean of the beatified and the beaten just as much as Holden Caulfield or Sal Paradise. Its narrator speaks in a distinctly countercultural tongue. Like those literary works to which it bears such a striking affinity, it presents a portrait of the stifling conformism of postwar American society. And in the rebellion-cum-suffering of Esther it counters it.

Estrangement celebrated

The Bell Jar opens in the ‘sultry’ heat of the summer of 1953, in which New York car tops ‘sizzle’ and the dust is ‘dry and cindery’. But Esther, starting an internship at a fashion magazine, doesn’t feel right. She feels strange. Estranged, in fact. ‘I was supposed to be having the time of my life… the way most of the other girls were.’ But she can’t stop thinking about the imminent execution of ‘the Rosenbergs’ (Juliua and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of passing on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union). In a clever foreshadowing of Esther’s own death drive and mini-execution – the electro-shock therapy that comes as part of her putative cure – she reveals that she ‘couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves’. Given these thoughts, Esther admits ‘I knew something was wrong with me that summer’.

And it’s the nature of Esther’s growing feeling of wrongness, her increasing dislocation, that Plath explores. What follows, then, is something like a progressive disillusionment with the social world. We bear witness to Esther’s growing inability to identify herself with the values and roles, particularly for women, that 1950s American society offers. She can’t quite bring herself to commit, and reconcile herself, to becoming this or that person. She dallies with the idea of a career in fashion magazines, she tries to engender herself as a woman at the hands of various, unpleasant male caricatures (she remains a virgin until near the end), and she toys with the idea of a domesticated future of cooking, cleaning and curling her hair, while turning out a few ‘muling babies’. But she can’t do it. In The Bell Jar, to commit to one course of life in particular is to sacrifice freedom in general. Plath captures this in the figure of a fig tree, in which at the tip of every branch is a particular future, and sat in the crotch of the tree is Esther, ‘neurotically’ unable to choose from among them: ‘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.’

The Bell Jar’s insight was to show how this disillusionment, this estrangement, and ultimately this rejection, was understood – and medicalised – in terms of mental illness. So with Esther’s distance from the limited possibilities of postwar America becoming a chasm, we see the figurative descent over Esther of Plath’s metaphor for madness, the bell jar, complete with its ‘stifling distortions’: ‘Wherever I sat… I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my soul air… To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.’

‘The world itself is a bad dream.’ In this we see the countercultural trick of The Bell Jar, a move articulated in RD Laing’s anti-psychiatry movement and high-theoretical form in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. That is, madness becomes a criticism of the society that produces it. Or, to give this sentiment its popular form, ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’.

The bell jar’s descent, then, grants Esther insight into the madness of the world. Deploying striking metaphor and simile, Plath offers up our own absurdity. Or rather, she snobbishly condemns the social mass. In one comic scene, Esther’s trip to the movies – the mass medium par excellence – becomes an opportunity to defamiliarise the audience: ‘I looked round me at all the rows of rapt little heads with the same silver glow on them at the front and the same black shadow on them at the back, and they looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moon-brains.’

For Esther, to live in society, to shop and cook, without going mad, requires this stupidity. Or, as she discovers at her private hospital, brain surgery:

‘”Do you know what these scars are?” Valerie persisted.
“No, what are they?”
“I’ve had a lobotomy.”
I looked at Valerie in awe, appreciating for the first time her perpetual marble calm. “How do you feel?”
“Fine. I’m not angry any more. Before, I was always angry. I was in Wymark, before, and now I’m in Caplan. I can go to town, now, or shopping or to a movie, along with a nurse.”
“What will you do when you get out?”
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” Valerie laughed. “I like it here.”‘

The phrase ‘marble calm’ is repeated towards the end in reference to Esther’s post-therapy reintroduction into life. But, unlike Valerie, Esther can’t forget: ‘I remembered 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 Dr Gordon’s wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the negro with his two kinds of beans and the three and twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a grey skull. Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape.’

The bell jar then, the madness, is not a deviation to be corrected. It becomes the right response to a dull, deadening life. And those who don’t grasp this – the kind of dupes who enjoy Hollywood romances – are not normal; they are ‘numbed’. What was so different about ‘those girls’ at college playing bridge to those being rehabilitated at various mental institutions, she asks? ‘Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.’ In their lives of bad faith, they just don’t know it.

In many ways, The Bell Jar is more achingly cynical, and far sadder, than the likes of Catcher in the Rye. Its vision of freedom, such as it is, is almost entirely negative, a negation, that is, of all that bonds and ties. Even that shorthand for sexual liberation – the contraceptive device – does not so much liberate Esther for the wonders of sex; it liberates her from commitments and from society. ‘I climbed up on to the examination table, thinking: “I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless…”‘ Little wonder that at the one point at which she does attempt to ‘join in’, by having sex with a man, Esther provides a sarcastic coda: ‘I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition.’ She is then taken to hospital due to internal haemorrhaging.

No, there’s something void about The Bell Jar‘s counterpoint to all that is. It is an empty freedom, a freedom simply to be, to tune in and drop out, a freedom best captured in that ‘old brag of [Esther’s] heart. I am I am I am.’ The proximity between pure being and nothingness, between this vision of freedom and death, is all too clear. This is why the one thing Esther loves – taking a long hot bath – evokes suicide; for when reclining in the bath, her social life recedes to nothingness. ‘Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don’t know them, I have never known them and I am very pure. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin on the way back is turning into something pure.’

Yet it seems, 50 years on, that the melancholy aspect to Plath’s countercultural tribute to madness has been almost entirely supplanted by its snobbish aspect. This certainly seems to be clear in the outraged response to Faber and Faber’s new fiftieth anniversary, The Devil Wears Prada-style cover. For devotees of The Bell Jar it is just too much to stomach. A novel which took broad swipes at unthinking women, from their consumerist hopes to their hackneyed romantic dreams, is now seemingly being aimed precisely at this type. ‘It’s clearly a marketing exercise designed to find the book a new readership: in this case, people who buy books with pictures of lipstick, handbags and shoes on their covers’, writes one online commenter. In this, one of the more depressing legacies of Plath’s countercultural resonance is writ large.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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