I will begin this section by discussing one of Plath’s most well known and highly anthologised poems: “Daddy”, written shortly before her death on October 12th, 1962. “Daddy” is a poem about extreme loss and grief, the human nature of which is concealed with a harsh tone and Plath’s controversial use of the Holocaust as an overall metaphor. Critic Al Strangeways states that “Plath’s whole oeuvre is frequently and superficially viewed as somehow tainted by the perceived egoism of her deployment of the Holocaust”, and suggests that simplistic condemnation of such a controversial element to this poem “disguises the difficulties surrounding any judgement of Plath’s treatment of this material”. If Plath chose to use the Holocaust for an egotistical reason, it would contradict with the fact that the main sentiment behind the poem “Daddy” is the speaker’s disbelief that her father is actually dead. It is important to note the possible connection here between the speaker in the poem and Plath’s own relationship with her father, Otto Plath, who passed away in 1940.
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Plath never once visited her father’s grave as a child, visiting for the first time in late 1959, nor attended his funeral, placing both Plath’s father and the subject of “Daddy” into a waiting state of Purgatory. In her journals, Plath states a desire to fulfil her need for definitive proof of her father’s death: a temptation to dig up his corpse and “prove he existed and really was dead” . In the poem, the speaker expresses a strong desire to be with her father, but eventually turns against him after a period of waiting with “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” . This triumphant final line does, however, harbour some irony as the one person who may have been able to listen to the speaker and help them “through” is no longer around. A matter of days after the completion of “Daddy”, Plath began work on “Medusa”, an equally brutal poem with a possible connection to the turbulent relationship Plath had with her mother, containing a similarly destructive last line with a demand for the mother figure’s disappearance: “Green as eunuchs, your wishes/ Hiss as my sins. Off, off, eely tentacle! There is nothing between us”. These final lines show an irrational hatred and an attempt to block out any lines of communication or feeling.
Whilst “Daddy” deals with the issues surrounding the death of a father, and the means by which one can gain freedom from grief, “Medusa” deals with how to gain freedom from a controlling mother. “Medusa” depicts an overdue birth scenario where tentacles suffocate the speaker in the poem, regardless of how hard she tries to remove herself. These “eely tentacles” Plath refers to could be attributed to either an octopus or jellyfish; it is significant to note here that Plath’s own mother’s first name, Aurelia, can be used as a synonym for “Medusa” . Plath implies throughout this poem that Medusa is something very demanding and compelling, describing herself as some kind of vessel being followed yet still curious about the creature: “Did I escape, I wonder?… My mind winds to you/ Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable” . The mother figure described in “Medusa” could not be more different from the defined “man in black” with a “neat moustache” in “Daddy”. Plath describes Medusa as “fat” and “red”, referring to her as “a placenta paralysing the kicking lovers” . Another significant aspect of “Medusa” is Plath’s presentation of the Church, likening it to the amorphous blob of the mother figure, with the epithet “Blubbery Mary”. This suggests that, like Medusa, the Church is also swollen and grotesque, both representative of martyrdom and not conducive to the speaker finding her individual voice: “I shall take no bite of your body,/ Bottle in which I live,/ Ghastly Vatican” .
Following on from “Medusa”, the two poems which are most relevant to Plath’s turbulent relationship with her mother are “The Disquieting Muses” and “Perseus: The Triumph of Wit Over Suffering”. In both of these lengthy poems, Plath uses paintings as a means of expressing her hatred for her mother, a woman described by Marjorie Perloff in an academic article of Contemporary Literature as “an uncomprehending martyr”. Perloff states that “whether or not this portrait of the mother as uncomprehending martyr is unfair to the real-life Aurelia Plath seems…totally beside the point. What matters is that her daughter sees her in this light” . In “The Disquieting Muses” particularly, it is evident from the opening line of “Mother, mother, what ill-bred aunt/ Or what disfigured and unsightly/ Cousin did you so unwisely keep/ unasked to my christening” that the speaker in the poem is directly addressing a mother figure who has high demands, in particular expectations of femininity and a need the child to fulfil her mother’s ambitions. “The Disquieting Muses” is modelled on a painting by Giorgio de Chirico of the same name, and is described by Julia C. Chang as a “construct, distinctive vision of a two-world division.” Chang goes on to explain that Plath uses de Chirico’s painting to “convey the psychological landscape”, borrowing surrealistic images or subject matter, from his art works to manifest three basic themes: the victimized female under the devastating male dominance, the persistence of negative elements in her life, and the loss of an intellectual mentor…. The two worlds present in these poems indicate the gap between the speaker and her relatives—the agonizing male-female, mother-daughter, and father-daughter relationships.” Whilst the poem bears the same name as the de Chirico painting, Plath drastically alters the tone from one of minimal sense of threat to a heavy sense of foreboding and danger. The painting focuses on three statue figures consisting of a classical style base and either a head alone or a head and torso combined, and these figures do not appear particularly imposing or dangerous as they are merely inanimate objects. Whilst Plath did not incorporate the inanimate element of these unrealistic dressmakers’ mannequins into her poem, she chose to include the harsh colours of de Chirico’s painting: aggressive orange and black contrasts. It is also significant to note here that Plath refers to the fairytale “Sleeping Beauty” with the mention of a relative “unasked” to a baby’s christening, suggesting a feel of vengeance from the two old women, muses of ballet and piano playing. The speaker’s mother is enlisted to help the child overcome her profound lack of artistic talent, perhaps in a similar way to how Aurelia Plath attempted to control her daughter. Peter Davison, a contemporary of Plath’s during the 1950’s, described Aurelia as being “terribly correct in her behaviour and mannerisms” upon their first meeting, an example of how Sylvia Plath’s perfectionist tendencies may be attributed at least in part to the similarly controlling nature of her mother, Aurelia. Whilst the speaker in the poem does eventually gain freedom from her mother, she cannot ever truly escape the influence that her mother and the muses have had on her, as shown in the hopeless tone of the lines “I woke one day to see you, mother,/ Floating above me in bluest air/ On a green balloon bright with a million/ Flowers and bluebirds that never were/ Never, never, found anywhere” . These lines at the end of the start of the seventh stanza of the poem generate a tone of despondency, a hopelessness in the thought that even after the speaker has gained enough confidence to break away from those who control her, she will never be able to escape the aftermath of such controlling relationships on her psychological state, as they will always be “floating” above her.
In a similar style to that used in “The Disquieting Muses”, Plath subtly places the blame for the speaker’s suffering on the mother figure in “Perseus: The Triumph of Wit over Suffering”. Paul Klee, a Swiss-German artist based in expressionism and cubism, created an etching with the same title as Plath’s poem which was used as a base for the poem. In the etching, Klee portrays two large figures: Perseus, portrayed as an ogre-like giant and Medusa, a deformed, human-like figure with no nose and the top part of her head missing. Whilst one of the focal points of Klee’s painting is the sideways, unsettling slant of Perseus’ gaze, Plath’s poem focuses on the grotesque nature of Medusa, and Perseus’ slaying of the person described in Plath’s other poem, “Medusa”, who “wallows in sorrow ” after her daughter has disappointed her. Plath praises the “prodigious act” of Perseus in the poem briefly, but focuses on the suffering of Medusa as an “eternal sufferer” . Whilst it is difficult to determine exactly why Plath compares Aurelia to the figure of Medusa on such a frequent basis, Medusa’s ability to “stiffen all creation” and channel “a look to numb limbs” could be comparable to the effect that a disapproving look from her mother could have on her psychological state.
A large proportion of Plath’s poetic writings show a deep and long-lasting connection between the consciousness of death and her poems themselves, a means by which Plath could easily reflect on death and despair. One of the means by which Plath does this is to employ the uncontrollable forces and behaviour of wild animals in her writing, using their natural energy to create imagery reminding her readers of the sheer power of death. This inclusion of a variety of animals, birds and insects in her writing may have been influenced by the work of her husband, Ted Hughes, whose poetry was heavily based on natural imagery, described by critic Dr. Paul Bentley as “a poet who celebrates the amoral and often violent energies of nature”. Hughes’ poetic sphere is focused around animals with an overtly violent nature such as foxes in “The Thought Fox”, an angry bull in “The Bull Moses” and a crow, widely associated with theft and slyness, in “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow” . Whilst Plath’s poetry does have strong roots in the natural world, her choice of animals is somewhat milder, for example in “Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows”: Plath generates a seemingly idyllic picture of a “spring lamb”, “small shrew”, “thumb-sized bird”, “tame cygnets” and a “water rat”. However, it is important to take into account that the underlying message in “Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows” is once again one of death, as the water rat and the shrew are both animals which are traditionally symbolic of death.
In her poem, “Pursuit”, written shortly after her marriage to Ted Hughes in 1956, is one of the strongest examples of Plath using violent animals to convey the meaning of death in a style similar to that of Hughes. The speaker in the poem is simply waiting for the frightening, black panther to tear her apart, opening the poem with “There is a panther stalks me down; /One day I’ll have my death of him;/ His greed has set the woods aflame” . Plath’s choice of a panther as her ferocious creature in “Pursuit” is two-sided, as at the same time that it automatically instils a sense of fear in the reader it is also one of the world’s rarest and most sought-after big cats, a mysteriously beautiful creature as well as a very dangerous one. In a letter that Plath wrote to her mother in 1957, Plath writes of the panther that it is a “symbol of terrible beauty of death, and the paradox that the more intensely one lives, the more one burns and consumes one’s self; death, here, includes the concept of love, and is larger and richer than mere love which is part of it.” With this decision to use a panther, Plath creates a paradoxical situation between the fear of death and admiration, and possibly human love.
In “Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper”, Plath uses specific literary devices such as enjambment and alliteration to assist her in portraying the purgatory-like state of Miss Drake, a patient on some form of psychiatric ward. Enjambment translates from French as the verb “to straddle”, and occurs in the form of one sentence being spread out over several lines of poetry. By employing this technique in the overall structure of “Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper”, Plath creates a sense of relentless motion. The poem is divided into two stanzas consisting of thirteen lines each, essentially two long sentences spread over the entire poem which creates a sense of building tension. It becomes evident that Miss Drake is a patient on a psychiatric ward when Plath described her as the “new woman on the ward” when she is walking to “the patient’s dining room” , yet Plath does not openly describe the fact that Miss Drake is mentally ill herself, choosing instead to suggest mental illness through Miss Drake’s perception of the world around her, for example her irrational fear of the carpet she is walking on. By employing enjambment in these lines, Plath breaks up the sentence and provides the reader with only small amounts of information at any one time. David Holbrook states that in Plath’s mind, “being incarcerated (harvested in the mental ward echoes this incarceration of the world within herself…an inner world must be maintained, cut off in its closed circuit from the outer world. The self itself has shrunk to something tiny and insignificant, like an elf.” Holbrook’s description of Plath’s own perception of her time on psychiatric wards is particularly relevant to the way Plath portrays Miss Drake’s actions. In order to understand the processes of Miss Drake’s mind, the reader must take what fragments they can perceive from Miss Drake’s personal, “inner world” to form an overall comprehension.
The last four lines of the first stanza of “Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper” are particularly relevant when exploring the effects that prolonged use of enjambment have in this poem; Plath creates uncomfortable images and enhances their effect by not closing the end of each line with some form of punctuation. Whilst the garden that Miss Drake walks through “between the cabbage-roses” may generally be perceived as a cultivated, controlled and calm environment, Plath counters this with a collaboration between animalistic and natural imagery in the form of roses gradually opening their “furred petals” . Plath’s decision to blur the line between animal and plant generates a wild and uncontrollable feel to the “cabbage roses” , and this somewhat uncomfortable image is enhanced by the lack of finality at the end of the line due to enjambment. The use of repeated alliteration in these lines in “to devour and drag her down” immediately generates a tone of aggression, a plosive consonant that has the same sonic quality as a harsh, blunt impact. The enjambment at the end of this openly violent line, however, presents the reader with a sense of hope for a resolution as the lack of definitive punctuation suggests a different conclusion to the one at the end of this line. This resolution that is suggested by the enjambment used is found immediately in the next line of the poem, with “into the carpet’s design” offering explanation for the meaning of the previous three lines, clarifying that the “cabbage roses” were in fact printed onto the carpet and furry due to the material used in the carpet, dispelling the aggressive images created before.
Plath’s poem, “Insomniac”, written in the Spring of 1961, is one of her clearest poetics accounts of the effects that a mental illness can have on a person, focusing around themes such as loneliness and nostalgia, and perceptions of mortality. The title itself denotes a person suffering from insomnia, a medically-recognised condition defined in Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary as “a disruption in the amount or quality of sleep that impairs function” , and this is useful in the interpretation of the poem. Before even embarking upon reading the first line of the poem, the reader is presented with the disconcerting image of a person struggling with a debilitating illness that leaves them frustrated and exhausted due to a lack of sleep, and this uncomfortable image is enhanced by Plath’s use of desert imagery at the end of the first stanza: “he suffers his desert-pillow, sleeplessness/ Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions” . Aside from the obvious distress caused by being forced to stay awake during the early hours of the morning, a person who suffers from insomnia may find themselves frequently left alone in these dark hours with little more than their thoughts for company. Plath concisely explains this rather intense situation in the lines “Over and over the old granular movie/ Exposes embarrassments” and “Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars” . This portrayal of depression that occurs as a result of enforced solitude late at night could be linked to Plath’s own problems with insomnia, as in January 1963 she visited her general practitioner, Dr. Horder, complaining of depression. Plath left having been prescribed a hypnotic drug to help her fall asleep and remain asleep, as she frequently experienced insomnia and early waking.
The interpretation of insomnia that Plath presents in “Insomniac” is emphasized by elements from “The Bell Jar” which was written in the same year that Plath visited her doctor for severe depression. There is a section of “The Bell Jar” which involves an interchange between Esther and her doctor, Teresa, in which Esther explains that the sleeping pills she was previously given “don’t work anymore”, and ends up being referred to a trained psychiatrist for further help with her situation. In both “The Bell Jar” and “Insomniac” alike, Plath chooses to express her own experiences with the illness through a narrative voice which takes the form of a defined persona, yet still remains distanced from her own voice, particularly in “Insomniac” as we are lead to believe that the speaker in the poem is a man because of Plath’s use of personal pronouns. “He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue… Those sugary planets whose influence won for him a life baptised in no-life… their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good” is a statement from “Insomniac” that forms a parallel to the scene in the “Bell Jar” when Esther states that the strongest pills are no longer working for her, a reflection of Plath’s own inability to find relief in the hypnotic medication she was prescribed. It is also significant to note that whilst Plath’s initial attempt at suicide in 1953 was unsuccessful, it was only made feasible due to the fact that Plath had stopped regularly taking the hypnotic drugs she had been prescribed. This left her with a collection of these pills, significantly large enough to make an attempt at overdosing herself, ironically with the very drugs that were meant to help improve her quality of life rather than take it away altogether.
Depression itself is also portrayed in a noteworthy manner in “Insomniac”. Plath makes clear comparisons between depression and a sort of eternal tedium and lack of happiness with one’s situation in life: “The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper” . Plath’s use of the word “only” suggests a sense of diminishing interest, and the connotations of “carbon paper” are impermanence and poor quality. In the following line, the description of the sky as “blueblack” a monotonous colour spectrum for the insomniac to gaze at but also sets up a contrast between the darkness of the sky and the “bonewhite light, like death, behind all things” of the stars poking through the night sky. This may infer a comparison between the respective darkness attributed with the insomniac’s life and the harsh whiteness of death, suggesting that whilst life is the obvious opposite of death, most of the speaker’s fascination is with the unknown and exciting brightness of all things connected to death, due to such an extreme level of dissatisfaction with his own life. This is also enhanced by the “old, granular movie” in the following stanza, as it presents conscious memories of life as unsatisfying due to their grainy nature and poor quality. As the speaker is left alone in the night due to his insomnia, the only evidence he has of his existence is memory, which themselves are essentially corrupted due to medication and time making them indistinct.
In “Autobiographical memory in depression”, an article published by J. M. G. Williams and J. Scott for a 1988 edition of “Psychological Medicine”, it is stated that patients with depression and insomnia are “not only biased in the speed with which they can remember positive and negative events from their past, but that they also find it more difficult to be specific in their memories. That is, they tend to recall sequences of events, or time periods, rather than single episodes. This tendency has been found to be more evident with positive than with negative events.” By portraying the speaker’s dissatisfaction with his memories, which are the sum of his whole life, Plath expresses dissatisfaction with life itself, shown in the childlike angst of describing those memories as “parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful” . In the third stanza, this dissatisfaction with life is transferred to the speaker stating that the “sugary planets” he must take to lift “the tedium” are a way of escaping from the timeless darkness of life he finds himself in. In this statement, Plath places the sleeping pills as an opposition to conscious memory and therefore life, and sets them up as a means of escape from a situation that the speaker is so plainly unhappy with. This tone of deep dissatisfaction comes to its height with a blatant disregard for the beauty of the daytime in the final stanza: “Already he can feel daylight, his white disease/ Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.” Plath’s decision to create a direct comparison between daylight and disease not only exemplifies the speaker’s extreme hatred for the brightness of life, but also links it to the insomniac “disease” from which the speaker, and Plath herself, suffered. It is important to note that as the daytime is a release from the intensity of being left with only his own thoughts at night, the daytime represents a time when the speaker can temporarily escape from the “interior of little grey mirrors” that is the speaker’s mind to interact with people and physical objects rather than immaterial things such as his own memories.
The speaker’s attitude toward love is also a significant aspect of “Insomniac” to take note of, as Plath closely links love to the depressive nature of living with insomnia. Whilst it is complex to make a direct comparison between Plath’s own experiences and the experience alluded to in the poem, it is possible that even though there is a gender barrier due to the fact the speaker is a man, the subtle references to romance may be connected to Plath’s own memories. “Childhood and adolescence” suggests a love that occurred when the either Plath or the speaker was young, and “sticky with dreams” has both a childlike element to it and slight sexual undertones. This could be a reference to one of Plath’s many relationships that she had whilst studying at Cambridge, for example with Gordon Lameyer or the turbulent dating period with Edwin Smith . The close link between love and depressive tendencies is shown in Plath’s choice of imagery in the line “a garden of buggy roses that made him cry” . As roses are generally associated with romantic intentions, a parallel is created with deep sadness and love as seeing the roses made the speaker cry, suggesting sadness or tension in a relationship such as Plath experienced with Gordon Lameyer, with him “manually assaulting” her and the pair of them “bitterly arguing” on a regular basis.
Between 1950 and 1955, Plath wrote over 300 poems of varying styles, classed as her “Juvenilia”: poetry she wrote before her twenty-third birthday. The majority of these poems were not ever published until Plath’s “Collected Poems”, described by Ted Hughes as being writings that were primarily written for class assignments that she had put “firmly behind her and would have certainly never published them herself”. After stating that whilst Plath’s “Juvenilia” were certainly not examples of her best writing, they “lit” her with “unique excitement” and encapsulated an “enclosed cosmic circus” that was full of potent imagery. Two of Plath’s most successful poems classed in the “Juvenilia” section of her Collected Poems are “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea” and “Cinderella”. “Cinderella” is based around the traditional European fairytale later popularised by the Brothers Grimm, and slows down the relentless pace of time to focus on the moment when Cinderella hears the twelfth bell of the clock, instructing her that her evening with the love of her life has now come to an end. Whilst slowing down time to freeze on this specific moment, Plath still maintains a sense of motion with words connects to Cinderella’s movement throughout the poem, such as “revolving”, “slide”, “whirling” and “gliding” . Stephen Gould Axelrod, in his biography “Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words”, states that Plath’s poems written in her “Juvenilia” period confront head-on the “contradictory notions of femininity” that existed “through American culture in the 1950s: sexual decorum in conflict with desire; vocational achievement at odds with heteronormative romance.” These “contradictory notions” are present in “Cinderella”, with Plath’s portrayal of the moral dilemma Cinderella finds herself experiencing when the clock bell calls her evening to a close. Plath’s decision to describe Cinderella as “guilt-stricken” places a burden of moral responsibility on Cinderella, and suggesting that the guilt is a product of a young girl allowing herself to fall in love. It is also significant to note that Plath chooses to alter the colour of Cinderella’s slipper from traditional gold to “scarlet heels” , a colour associated with confidence and which carries an implication of the impure in Plath’s work.
In “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea”, Plath describes the speaker as facing her own harsh reality against the ideas she has of romance, forcing her to distinguish between the symbolically real and imaginary seas. Through her use of rhyming, for example “ocean” with “extrapolation” , Plath creates a sense of the ebb and flow of the water as well as highlighting the limitations of romantic imagination. This contrast between imagination and reality is exemplified with the ephemeral tone Plath adopts at the start of the poem, with a dreamy and beautiful holiday scenario made transient with the harshness of the fact their holiday home has been abandoned: “Cold and final, the imagination/ Shuts down its fabled summer house/ Blue views are boarded up” . Another contrast can be found in the following stanza, with “a maze of mermaid hair tangling in the tide’s green fall” being juxtaposed by the morbid tone of the hair disappearing “like bats… into the attic of the skull” . Both of these contrasts imply that it is no longer possible for the speaker to dwell in their imagination, and highlights the helplessness of someone who can do nothing but stand and watch as the product of their imagination is swept away. Plath extends this morbid tone further with her description of human bones being washed up onto the sea shore in the fifth stanza, an unsettling image that suggests the intrinsic nature of romantic thoughts is a deep-rooted as the bone infrastructure of our bodies, yet can still be washed away with the motion of the tide. Finally, Plath reminds the reader that if a person’s mind is altered by love, it is impossible for romantic hopes to realise themselves by comparing the speaker’s mind to an oyster that “labours on and on” . The poem is an expression of the difficulties of accepting reality over a imagination filled with ideas about love and hope for the future.
In this section I will be focusing on Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar”, which was first published in 1963, just one month before her death. Ted Hughes described “The Bell Jar” as Plath’s “far from complete” autobiography, in which Plath “strove to see herself honestly” and fought through the “unmaking and remaking of herself”. Hughes states that the presentation of Plath in this novel is the “closest [we] can now get to the real person in her daily life”. This implies that in the eyes of her husband, Plath’s true identity was the one she adopted in the latter years of her life leading up to her suicide, when she was living with both severe depression and insomnia, relying on hypnotic drugs to manage her condition. This shows the deep level of understanding Hughes had for Plath’s complex personality and mental illness, by stating that the morbid obsessions discussed throughout the Bell Jar are expressive of Plath’s true personality. These thoughts of death, whether or not they are akin to Plath’s own lifelong mentality, pervade “The Bell Jar”, and it must be noted that ‘death’ is a prominent feature in a considerable amount of Plath’s work.
In a similar fashion, the novel’s protagonist, Esther, harbours anxieties about death that take precedence over all her anxieties about life. As a result of this, Esther’s reactions to difficult situations are so limited that she has no reaction at all, apart from to lie. An example of this is her ready disagreement with Cal about the safety of swimming further ahead, retorting back to Cal’s defeat with “Okay. You go back.” It is evident that Plath chose to create a side to Esther’s character that is afraid of defeat, also including a very child-like approach to confrontation. The statement Plath is making here is that the fear of death and the fear of life are mutually exclusive, an Esther, like a child, is afraid of life.
Kate Moses, in her article written in May 2000, describes Plath as an “unreasonable perfectionist whose outrageous demands alienated everyone who crossed her path” and a “devoted wife and mother shattered by her idolized husband’s betrayal”. The statement concerning Plath’s perfectionist tendencies may well be accurate, as shown in the meticulous poetic descriptions in her earlier poetry, for example the vivid description and use of contrasting colour imagery between the “red blooms” and /white surroundings throughout her 1961 poem, “Tulips”. Critic Edward Butscher, in his 1976 biography of Plath, describes how this leaning toward perfectionism branched into many aspects of Plath’s life, beginning with her culinary abilities. Butscher states that Plath was a “mediocre cook at best”, but was able to turn out “delicious and often elegant meals… with the aid of a cookbook”. Plath’s perfectionist tendencies were common when “confronted by an unknown practical art”, as she “paid strict attention to detail and was satisfied with nothing less than perfection: as though she actually believed that anything worth doing was worth doing well”. However, I do not believe that the idea Plath was “shattered” purely by Hughes’ infidelity to be entirely accurate, as a significant part of Plath’s perfectionist personality can be attributed to her diagnosis as schizophrenic and also the ECT (Electro Shock Treatment) she received which, at multiple points in her life, plunged her into “a time of darkness, despair, disillusion… symbolic death and numb shock… then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration”.
In “The Bell Jar, it is interesting to note that there is a similar situation surrounding Esther’s suicidal tendencies, as whilst Plath presents mental illness as a largely contributing factor, the external factors leading to Esther’s suicidal are numerous. In particular, the darkness of life plainly disturbs her, and this is shown in her fascination with the “big glass bottles full of babies that had died before they were born” that Buddy showed her. This image returns throughout the novel, for example the correlation with babies going “through a stage where they were just like fish” in Chapter 13. Plath could be implying here 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, a strong external factor rather than mental illness alone pulling her toward suicide. Deciphering the primary cause of Plath’s own suicide is certainly more complex than laying blame entirely on her “idolized husband’s betrayal”, and this is exemplified by the following quotation about Hughes from Plath’s private journals in 1958: “He is my pole-star… centering me steady and right”.
One of the most prevalent themes in “The Bell Jar” is a fear of death. The novel in its entirety and Chapter 13 in particular, is filled with strong imagery that points to this omnipresent fear. Plath ensures that 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 a head of a cadaver from her mind. Even the title itself ensues an air-tight place and isolated where the soul and body dies; essentially a suffocating tomb used by Plath to symbolise society’s constraints and mixed messages that trap both herself and Esther within its stifling glass dome. All these images and ideas suggest that the main preoccupation in the book and Esther’s mind alike is death. This same ominous imagery also 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 that is discussed in this Chapter appears to be Ibsen, and it handles themes such as mental illness and the problems associated with sexuality at that time. It is also important to note 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 significant to note here that whilst Plath was a highly ambitious, intelligent woman who was sexually motivated, she was living in a time when women were considered morally bankrupt if they were particularly open or relaxed concerning their sexuality. William Henry Chafe, in his novel “The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century” states that “any threat to the family, woman’s “place” of traditional definitions of sexuality was perceived as part of a larger plot to destroy America.” It is highly possible that there is a connection between Plath’s own situation and Esther’s life, as Plath rather forcefully rejects the assumption through a reference to the work of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen that deviant sexuality could be considered a valid cause for mental illness. Plath references Ibsen’s 1881 play, “Ghosts”, in which a young boy is branded with a severe brain disease as a result of his father getting involved with unclean women . 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 her problems deciding on her writing career), or that can be traced to a sexual atmosphere that was repressed as opposed to liberated. It is also significant to note that regardless of constraints set by the society that Esther is surrounded by, she creates her own set of constraints that cannot be broken, in turn creating a very high stress environment. An example of this is how a hot dog must be cooked for “just the right amount of time” , and how 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 Plath creates here 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.
Plath’s dissociative tendencies are yet another strong trait that seemed to become more frequently evident in her writing after her marriage to Hughes in 1956. An example of this is in “The Bell Jar” with Esther trying to drown herself, and Plath creates a fissure between mind and body by essentially portraying Esther’s body in a light that shows it as a commodity, and turning one against the other. In his novel “The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness”, R. D. Laing describes this split between the internal and external personalities in order to characterise schizophrenia: “The inner self is occupied in fantasy and observation. It observed the processes of perception and action. Experience does not impinge… directly on this self, and the individual’s acts are the provinces of a false-self system.” 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 of the divide) could possibly be seen as her body’s attempt to send a different message to Esther’s gradually distanced mind. It is interesting to note here that 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 portrays Esther as living from the outside in, which bears relevance to two quotations from her journals: “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad” from the year 1951, and “I have been, and am, battling depression . It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative — whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it” from 1958. This shows Plath’s struggle of truly fighting her internal passivity, or just concealing it with the “joyous” positivity she describes.
It is also significant to note how Plath portrays general competency in the “Bell Jar”, as her own intelligence was one of the initial attractions between Hughes and Plath when they met at Cambridge University. In an interview for The Paris Review in Spring 1995, Hughes stated that after getting to know Plath and reading some of her poems, he “saw straight off that she was some kind of genius” and immediately became completely committed to her writing. Perhaps coincidentally in a similar tone, in “The Bell Jar”, Esther’s significant academic achievements outweigh her inevitable fears about the future. The effect that this has is that as the quality that Esther valued most about herself was her intelligence, 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 and is yet another example of her low self-confidence; none of the other characters make any reference to this ‘fault’. Plath portrays Esther as regularly taking ownership of this fault, placing the focus for the reader onto this symptom of depression as a seemingly unforgivable fault of her own.
The tone that Plath adopts when giving any form of reference to Esther’s suicide attempts has an incongruous feel to it. 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” make the reader conveniently forget that she is doing something momentous in trying to take her own life. This bears relevance to a statement Hughes made about Plath in “Birthday Letters”, a collection of poems that document his intense relationship with Plath that was published after her death in 1998: “Nobody wanted your dance,/Nobody wanted your strange glitter, your floundering/Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,/Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,/Looking for something to give.” The bitterness and flippant tone shown here by Hughes is strikingly similar to the colloquial choice of language Plath employs when discussing suicide, suggesting a correlation between Hughes’ attitudes to Plath’s instability and mental illness and Plath’s tendency to make something as significant as suicide seem inconsequential. It is also significant to note that the sonic qualities to “fat” of “fat chance” has a rather ‘squashed’ quality to a flat vowel following a frictive; neither of the words “fat” or “chance” are elongated vowel sounds and both are monosyllabic. This leads to a tone of colloquialism and a feeling of insignificance. All suicide attempts in “The Bell Jar” up are not followed through due to practical considerations; this on its own is enough to place doubt over how serious somebody is if they are so easily dissuaded, and by such small obstacles. Plath’s 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” . Plath presents the idea throughout “The Bell Jar” that thoughts of death can concentrate the mind; the reader sees this principle operating in Plath herself in a rather perverse way. Her own thoughts of death led to richly descriptive, successful 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, yet the literature itself could never be a way to save her life and marriage.
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