Falls the shadow: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. Faber: 1963.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932, which made her 31 when her only novel was published, shortly before her suicide. According to Ted Hughes she began writing it in 1961.  As a consequence of the similarities between the story of her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and her own, it’s tempting to see it as at least semi-autobiographical. Let’s avoid that temptation.

This novel has been so widely written about – it’s often featured on the syllabus of schools and universities, and is seen as a seminal work of feminist fiction – that I shan’t give a detailed plot summary. Instead I’ll pick out a few points that interested and pleased me.

Its opening lines have become a famous example of the intriguing ‘hook’:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions.

The candid, tortured first-person narrative voice is distinctively Esther’s – the seemingly casual ‘and’ tellingly links as grammatically equivalent two events of otherwise striking difference; the syntax shows that for the narrator they’re not. That reference to the execution of the couple convicted of spying for the Soviet Union on America’s nuclear capacity (a charge still contested by many) dates the narrative 1953. It also sets up one element of the novel: the tensions and bigotry in America at that time. (Later, one of Esther’s colleagues called Hilda displays a chillingly dismissive attitude towards this execution: ‘It’s awful such people should be alive,’ she says with casual disdain. ‘I’m so glad they’re going to die.’ Esther’s own views, characteristically, aren’t explicitly given, but it’s clear she finds such views symptomatic of her fellow Americans. She refers to Hilda as speaking here with the cavernous voice of a ‘dybbuk’ – a malicious mythological spirit.)

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar cover

My Faber paperback edition of the novel

That impersonal structure – ‘they electrocuted’ -shows her sense of detachment from the events, however; she doesn’t share the paranoia, it registers less strongly, as the structure of that opening sentence reveals, than her personal sense of dislocation. This is a compelling, often terrifying narrative of an intelligent, diligently academic young woman’s decline into a depression that almost destroys her.

That second quoted sentence sounds like the callow bravado of Holden Caulfield – and there’s more than a touch of his equally distraught sense of hopelessness and disorientation in this narrative. Some early critics dismissed it as ‘girlish’, perhaps (patronisingly) misreading that naïve style, laced at times with contemporary teen slang, and the gushing, breathless ingenuousness, especially in the early, pre-institutionalised section of the novel; here’s and example, chosen at random, from p. 48. Esther has been set up with a date with a Russian interpreter at the UN called Constantin:

I collected men with interesting names. I already knew a Socrates. He was tall and ugly and intellectual and the son of some big Greek movie producer in Hollywood, but also a Catholic, which ruined it for both of us.

But this faux-naïve style is essential for the establishment of Esther as a 19-year-old trying to locate her identity and place herself meaningfully in the heedless world she’s discovering for the first time. She flirts with all kinds of personae, even considering becoming a nun at one point.

Her other equally compelling dilemma is that of losing her virginity in a world where all the men she meets are insensitively arrogant, like Buddy, the harmless but vapid student from her home town whom she considers herself engaged to, or the Peruvian thug Marco, who tries to rape her. Esther isn’t so naïve; she pegs him from the start as ‘a woman-hater’, and steals his diamond ‘stickpin’. Esther still has spirit at this point. She can even see why some women might be attracted to such misogynistic predators:

Women-haters were like gods; invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.

This might sound ‘girlish’, but it’s perceptive and, in a sense that still resonates today, realistic. Although it maybe shows an aspect of Esther’s dwindling self-esteem, it’s also redolent of her core values. The Marcos of this world, she realises, are the same ‘they’ who executed the Rosenbergs.

In the first part of the novel we witness the cause of Esther’s problem: she doesn’t know why she’s there in the city in the coveted role as intern at a women’s fashion magazine that has pretensions of literariness. Though she can’t quite articulate it in this part of the narrative, she hates the shallow pointlessness of the work she’s obliged to engage in and the people she works with. Her ambition to write serious literature is stifled so effectively by those around her, including her mother, so ambitious (like everyone else) to mould her daughter into the Stepford Wife form she considers desirable, to realise she’s missing the signs of Esther’s distress, that she simply switches off her consciousness, loses agency. Eventually she comes to feel she’s suffocating under a bell jar, like a scientist’s specimen, and attempts suicide.

Esther avoids the company of the ‘Pollyanna’ faction in the girls’ hostel she lives in during the novel’s first section; she longs to be a rebel like her friend Doreen. But she also realises that Doreen’s idea of a good time ends with her serving as a drink-sedated groupie for a sleazy DJ. All of her female contemporaries are happily speeding into spirit-destroying patriarchal dead ends. There seems no route open for someone with her gifts and sensibility.

The second section is harrowing, the language full of images of death, fear and disintegration. Here the narrative reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Esther is subjected to a terrifying ‘treatment’ of ECT by her first psychiatrist. Later she’s moved, thanks to her scholarship benefactress, to a more humane institution where a more enlightened woman doctor finds a way of leading Esther back into her true self. Along the way we’re given frightening glimpses into Esther’s abyss:

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

Esther’s truly is a descent into hell. Narrated not ‘girlishly’, but with a poet’s ear and eye, as that last quotation demonstrates with its numbed, rhythmic repetitions and deceptive simplicity of structure. The reiterations and grimly cumulative ‘and’ clauses and phrases show how dangerously alluring and ubiquitous the deadening abyss appears to a lost soul like Esther – it’s everywhere she looks. This passage is similar in its barely suppressed hysteria and atrophied bleakness of tone to the desolate insight articulated in Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.’