One of the most prevalent themes in “The Bell Jar” is a fear of death. The novel as a whole, and Chapter 13 in particular, is filled with strong imagery that points to this omnipresent fear. This theme is evident from the very first page, with the reference to the Rosenberg execution and also Esther’s inability to remove the image of the head of a cadaver from her mind. Even the title itself ensues an air-tight, isolated place where the soul and body dies; essentially a suffocating tomb used to symbolise society’s constraints and mixed messages that trap Esther. All these images and ideas suggest that the main preoccupation in the book, and Esther’s mind, is death.
This same ominous imagery begins very early in Chapter 13, with Esther’s date with Cal reinforcing not only the aforementioned theme but other prominent themes in the novel. The play discussed appears to be Ibsen, and handles themes such as mental illness and problems associated with sexuality. It is also significant that in the discussed play, it is explicitly stated that the protagonist’s mental illness is directly traceable to his “fooling around with unclean women”. It is possible that there is a connection between Esther’s life and society and the play, as Plath rather forcefully rejects the assumption that deviant sexuality could be considered a valid cause for mental illness. This is done by portraying Esther in a way that shows her as having problems to face that are either completely unrelated to sexuality (for example problems deciding on her writing career), or that can be traced to a sexual atmosphere that was repressed, as opposed to liberated.
Esther’s attempts to conquer the self, and her dissociative tendencies are yet another strong personality trait. In Esther’s attempts to drown herself, Plath creates a fissure between mind and body, portraying Esther’s body as a commodity. This is shown through the rhythm of “I am, I am, I am”: Esther’s mind (on one side of the divide) listens intently to the rhythm her body transmits through a heartbeat, whilst that heartbeat (on the opposite side) is her body’s attempt to send a different message to Esther’s gradually distanced mind. The steady rhythm is only coming from the body, not the mind, perhaps implying that the heartbeat is symbolic of the body’s own will to live. Plath essentially portrays Esther as living from the outside in.
‘Death’ is a prominent feature in a considerable amount of Plath’s work. Similarly, Esther’s anxieties about death take precedence over all her anxieties about life. As a result of this, Esther’s reactions to difficult situations are so limited that she perhaps has no reaction at all, except to lie. An example is her ready disagreement with Cal about the safety of swimming further ahead, retorting, “Okay. You go back.” This shows a side to Esther that is afraid of defeat, and also a very childish approach. The statement Plath is making here seems to be that the fear of death and the fear of life are mutually exclusive, an Esther, like a child, is afraid of life. The aforementioned lies are the result of not expressing this fear, perhaps in some attempt to justify the validity of her own existence and reality.
The tone that Plath adopts when giving any form of reference to Esther’s suicide attempts has an incongruous feel; the lack of solid decisions and gradually accumulating details make the reader begin to question the rationale, or lack of it. The way in which Esther’s voice becomes “casual” and her use of language, such as “fat chance”, makes the reader conveniently forget that she is doing something momentous. Also, the sonic qualities of “fat chance” have a rather ‘squashed’ and insignificant feel; neither of the words contain elongated vowel sounds and both are monosyllabic. Her very matter-of-fact tone creates a similar effect to reading a checklist rather than a chapter in a novel: “That morning I [had] tried to hang myself” being followed not long after with another short sentence with equal simplicity of language “Then I hunted around for a place to attach the rope”. Also, Plath focuses here not on the reasons why Esther wants to commit suicide, but rather the logistics of how the goal can be achieved. By using this technique, the reader is coaxed into the same way of thinking as Esther.
There is a fine balance between the deciding factors for Esther’s suicide; whether the cause is external factors, mental illness alone, or some combination of the two. Significantly those external factors are numerous. In particular, the darkness of life plainly disturbs her, as shown by her fascination with the “babies in the jars” that Buddy showed to her, and the repetition of this subject throughout the novel. This could imply that humans having gills is a direct link to their primitive state (being aquatic creatures) which would act as a trigger in pulling Esther towards drowning.
Her significant academic achievements provide ballast against Esther’s self-destructive characteristics. As intelligence is the quality that Esther valued most about herself, her most easily accessible form of self destruction is to over-dramatise her own incompetence. Her reflections on the decision to go to the beach are: “I didn’t want to go at first, because I thought Jody would notice the change in me, and that anybody with half an eye could see I didn’t have a brain in my head”. The focus here is on Esther’s supposedly diminishing intelligence and lack of sharp observation. This is yet another example of her low self-confidence; none of the other characters make any reference to this ‘fault’. Esther herself does, several times, therefore placing the focus for the reader onto this symptom of depression as a seemingly unforgivable fault of her own.
Regardless of constraints set by the society that Esther is surrounded by, she creates her own set of unbreakable constraints, in turn creating a very high stress environment for herself. A hot dog, for example, must be cooked for “just the right amount of time”. Esther is portrayed to be terrified of slipping outside her boundaries. It is also significant that she “buried it in the sand”; most likely because the hot dog failed to meet her perfectionist standards. The rigidity of the environment that Esther enters into becomes so powerful that any chance of reversal would be more dangerous than it is worth. Plath implies by this that it would be completely impossible for Esther to cross over her boundaries; for the inability to commit to her entirely self-imposed demands would push her ever closer to her withdrawal and collapse.
There is a notion that thoughts of death can concentrate the mind; the reader sees this principle operating in Plath in a rather perverse way. Her own thoughts of death led to fabulous writing, but never acted as an escape from those thoughts. It is evident that The Bell Jar was Plath’s attempt at self analysis, and perhaps an attempt to ‘cure’ herself of her depression. Like Esther, Plath was able to transform her phobias and obsessions into literature. I don’t believe there to be one solid reason behind why the literature could never be a way to save her life; perhaps the drug that was her writing made Plath think that she could transform all the pain, and when it became clear that it couldn’t be done, she turned the pain against herself. But for whatever reason, Plath was never able to look beyond her somewhat childlike fears of life; she could never accept that life has to be lived as an act of faith and courage, if it is to be lived at all. Plath writes in Esther’s voice, the voice of a depressive, which is why The Bell Jar is both a definite, biting prescription for health and a realistic, unmerciful case study.
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