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.’





13 thoughts on “Falls the shadow: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

  1. Wow. What a powerful essay, Simon. Clearly, there is literally no “place” for Esther Greenwood in the world she finds herself in. So sad that the road to madness seems preordained for her. This reminds me a bit of some perceptive recent comments I read on the character of Kurtz in the film “Apocalypse Now.” The suggestion that madness may have been the only “rational” response to some situations.

    In a related vein, there is an incredible series of essays by Estelle Lauter in a little-known book called “Women As Mythmakers.” Topic of the book is poetry and visual art of 20th Century women, including discussion of female archetype and mythology. Some women discussed include Margaret Atwood, Diana Wakoski, Kathe Kollwitz, Remedies Varo, Lenonor Fini, and Anne Sexton. Some themes: Are women’s visions from collective history or current intuition? The gaps between language and reality, are they different for women than for men. And much more. I cannot praise this book highly enough. And, amazingly (but perhaps in keeping with the “silencing” of women) unknown, and out of print.

    If I can find the excerpt, I will mail whole thing to you, but as I recall, Lauter mused that what doomed Anne Sexton was having absolutely no frame of reference for her poetry, which Lauter considered a mystical search for a “god” that was not some remote father figure. Lauter absolutely disposes of the crude and dismissive view that Sexton was a confessional poet, and suggests this has been used to dismiss the work of women mystics as “personal.”

    Her fatal error? Isolating herself (Lauter references in comparison someone like Mary Daly, who is better able to integrate her absolutely “out of the paradigm” search for a new “god”) Instead, Sexton stopped taking her medication and cut herself off with her visions until they destroyed her.

    Some of this resonates so strongly with me, in the sense of not being able to even visualize myself as a “creative artist” for much of my early life, then ending up at 40, feeling mentally suffocated in a cramped but demanding job as a federal government auditor. I broke out in a rather messy way, but not at any permanent cost to life or health, thank goodness!

    Best to you and the family!

    • Auden: thanks for the recommendation – sounds an interesting study. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to The Bell Jar, but am glad I did – it’s a memorable reading experience. Thanks too for the encouragement- it’s not an easy novel to write about objectively

  2. This takes me back to the time when I read this book, many years ago now. If truth be told, I was probably too young and inexperienced at the time to fully appreciate its subtleties, so it’s interesting to revisit it now by way of your review. That voice is very striking, isn’t it? So distinctive.

    • How’s this for that ‘girlish’ voice; this is near the end of the novel, when one of her neighbours in the psy institution, Joan, has shockingly succeeded in killing herself and Esther braces herself to attend the funeral: ‘There would be a black,six-foot-deep gap hacked in the hard ground [it’s been snowing]. That shadow would marry this shadow, and the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in the whiteness, and yet another snowfall erace the traces of newness in Joan’s grave.’ Clearly shows the ingenue voice I quoted from the early parts of the novel was just that: a voice of a person not yet completed. A new take on that ‘falls the shadow’ extract I quoted in the post. Didn’t have the space to show how the voice develops so subtly, with such…i don’t know, dignity. I hesitate to say it, Jacqui, but this is probably one for revisiting. Won’t take long to reread…honest.

  3. Excellent post Simon, and a good point about resisting seeing the book as just autobiography which is too simplistic. I think the reader’s response to the book definitely changes with age and experience, but whenever you read it, it’s remarkably powerful. I was just glad that when I revisited it, it knocked me out as much as first time round.

    • It had a powerful punch for me too, Karen. The raw honesty of the narrative is astonishing. I wish I’d read it when I was the age she was when she wrote it – but maybe not. It all fits in.

  4. Very interesting take on the book. I found it interesting to read in her letters (not the ones recently published, this was a book that came out around 1980) how carefully planned it was: she knew, I think, that people would take it as the autobiographical ramblings of a young woman, and she was quite calculating about it. As you say, it is faux-naïve.
    But it is a very powerful piece of work, and most certainly still speaks to young women (not only of course) today. With some nice clothes and accessories!

  5. Thankjs for stopping by my Blog Simon. I have been reading some of your posts and both your taste in books and your writing about them is impressive.

    I have been meaning to read The Bell Jar for some time. As you describe it here, this sounds like such a great character study. The passages that you quoted are very impressive too.

  6. Excellent Simon. I’ve read this at least three times over the years and never cease to be impressed by it. The fact it’s suitable for teaching in schools doesn’t remotely mean it’s not serious literature. For me it’s a hugely well written and powerful book.

    The two scenes that always stick with me (other than that wonderful opening line) is the awful sequence where she loses her virginity and the ECT episode you mention. It’s a book that stays with you.

    As for “girlish”, I honestly think that says much more about some male critics than it does about Plath’s writing, not least because as you note that voice changes over the course of the book.

    • Thanks, Max. There are so many memorable scenes – those in the first half like a sort of campus novel/young woman in big city, those in the second like a descent into a lower circle of hell. Was there anything SP couldn’t do in terms of writing if she put her mind to it?!

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