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From Life to Literature: The Bell Jar

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

 

       Temperatures in the winter were not the only thing that had reached an all time low that year. During her extremely long and tiring battle with depression originating from childhood, she was constantly tormented by her own mind. Recently, her husband had cheated on her and the very book she had poured her heart into writing was receiving poor reception in the United States. Wanting to end her suffering and put her demons to rest once and for all, on February 11th, 1963, Sylvia Plath gassed herself to death (Cohen).

As a final gesture toward her children, she stuffed the bottom of the doors to their rooms with rags so they would not smell anything, and left milk and cookies by the bedside. Throughout her life she struggled between becoming the person she wanted to be and fulfilling the role society expected of her. This internal conflict plagued her throughout her life and was a major theme of her one and only book, The Bell Jar.

       Plath published her book under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, taking the precaution to protect “the many people close to her whose personalities she had distorted and lightly disguised in the book” (Plath 203). Significant events in Plath’s childhood as well as adulthood greatly influenced the content of The Bell Jar, and as a result it was considered a roman a clef, or a “novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction” (Cohen).

Sylvia Plath lost her father to diabetes at the “tender age of eight” (Anspach). Although he could have very easily received insulin shots and lived, her father refused to get treated and simply accepted his death. This deeply affected her because as a little girl she admired her father and basked in his praise; in her eyes the most “brutal thing [he] did… was to abandon her by dying early” (Anspach). This experience traumatized her, and as a direct result, at ten years old, she attempted to cut her throat to get “back, back, back” to him (Neurotic).

-             “…and I felt happier than I had been since I was about nine and running along the hot white beaches with my father the summer before he died…I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old” (Plath 20).

  • This alludes to how Esther’s nonfictional counterpart also revered her father, the young age at which he passed away and the significant impact his death had on her when Plath soon become depressed afterwards.

-            “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” (Plath 32).

  • This quote refers to her father’s death, and his sense of pride for not having to rely on anyone, that he would rather be dead than crippled for the rest of his life. In a way, Sylvia viewed her father’s death as suicidal and eventually “started to think about her own death as the unavoidable sequel to his” (Anspach).

 

Sylvia Plath was a college student the 1950’s, and although women had more rights than their predecessors a century ago, there were still stereotypes and expectations toward women, to be the perfect house wife, doing all the cooking and cleaning, which Plath found absolutely ridiculous. Both Esther and Sylvia were “[women] torn between being [the] perfect writer[s] and [the] perfect house[wives] and not succeeding at either” (Cohen).

-             “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” (66).

  • Referring to Buddy Willard, who was inspired by the real life Dick Willard, a medical student at Yale, Esther was angered by the double standard and hypocrisy demonstrated by him: wanting her to remain a virgin while he could go out and sleep with other women as he pleased. She wanted to be as “experienced” as the men she met and viewed it as unfair when she was expected not to be.

-            “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (Plath 62).

  • Esther refuses to conform to the society, around her but instead challenges it, and in this quote specifically, abhors the idea of transcribing letters for men as she struggles with indecisiveness towards her future after college.

-            “…were secretaries and executives and simply hanging around New York waiting to get married to some career man or another” (Plath 3).

  • Esther and Sylvia were both surrounded by peers who had accepted their role as traditional housewives, putting family ahead of career, and the idea that women were to just spend so much time on education and work and then get married and stay at home seemed like a waste to both of them.

-            “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 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” (Plath 62).

  • The fig tree is a strong metaphor for all of Esther’s, as well as Sylvia’s, fears and apprehensions toward the unknown future. There is internal conflict as she cannot decide between the traditional role of a house wife or a career as a magazine editor, writer, or anything else, because she felt each of the different outcomes presented to her were mutually exclusive. The was this constant fear in her that if she wasted too much time trying to pick only one, then eventually all of her opportunities would be lost.

Another thing Sylvia Plath struggled with was depression, and throughout the book Esther began to lose her grip on sanity, slipping deeper and deeper into depression as the book progressed. This was due to a combination of disappointment, a loss of identity, dissatisfaction with herself, in addition to the previously mentioned internal conflicts.

-            “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 here and a prize here and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus” (Plath 2)

  • As much as Plath wanted to be excited about her good fortune, she discovered New York was not at all what she seemed, with everyone there looking “bored as hell” and she realizes the ugly side of the glamour after a night out with Doreen resulting both of them drunkenly making their way back to the hotel and one of them throwing up (Plath 14).

-            “…I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it. The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end” (Plath 62).

  • Sylvia Plath was a great student all throughout her life, known for getting straight A’s and graduating at the top of her class, however, Esther realizes that with college soon coming to an end, she feels she does not have much else to be proud of outside of school.

-            “All through June the writing course stretched before me like a bright, safe, bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet from the gap” (Plath 93).

  • The writing course, something Esther had definitely expected to get into was the final straw in terms of disappointment with herself. In real life, Sylvia Plath often had bouts of writers blocks and felt like she had “lost all [her] talents in writing” (Bernard).

 

Sadly, Sylvia Plath died thinking her book was a failure when it turned out to become the complete opposite going on to become one of her most popular works. She was praised for her honesty in writing, and went on to receive a Pulitzer prize. Had she been alive today, she would have been proud to see the lasting effects of her autobiography turned novel, half a century later.

 

 References

Anspach, Mark. "Sylvia Plath's Suicide and the Shadow of Her Father." Imitatio.com. Imitatio, n.d. Web. 03 June 2013.

Bernard, April. "The New York Review of Books." Sylvia Plath: Rage and Laughter by April Bernard. New York Books, 5 June 2013. Web. 03 June 2013.

Cohen, Alix. "Esther Has Her Head in the Oven—And You're Laughing « Woman Around Town." WomanAroundTown.com. Woman Around Town, 13 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 June 2013.

"Neurotic Poets." NeuroticPoets.com. Neurotic Poets, n.d. Web. 05 June 2013.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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