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Sylvia Plath

  1. The Bell Jar (1963)

In this lecture I suggest different ways of reading text. What I don’t do is offer an exemplary way of reading the text analytically. I leave that task to you. I would strongly recommend you read Christina Britzolakis’ The Theatre of Mourning if you are working on Plath. I readily admit Christina is the expert on Plath and that I only lecture on Plath during her study leave.

Debates about madness in late fifties early sixties
I am not suggesting any direct influence here, rather trying to contextualize generally. But in that spirit in might be useful to lok at the work of R.D. Laing, who proposed that "madness" is not a matter of individual mental illness but a symptomatic manifestation of society’s sickness. He characterised society as oppressive, with a predilection to create categories, assign roles and punish those who failed to conform to those roles. In his analysis, the mechanisms of inhibition and control were often exerted by family members on the scapegoat member of the family, not necessarily in a consciously willed fashion.Laing draws on J.P. Sartre’s chapter on mauvais foi (bad faith) in On Being and Nothingness in his analysis of the "false self". The conceptualization of human personality as divided into an inner "true self" and an outer "mask" or "false self system" which one presented to the world was pervasive in the late fifties /early sixties. Both Sartre and Laing were highly influential intellectuals, whose writings and ideas spread far beyond their immediate specialist circles. Both suggested that there was a crisis in human identity, because of the oppressive mechanisms of social control, which alienated the individual. In La Nausée, the image for this deeply disturbing sense of alienation is physical nausea, a literary device that Plath uses repeatedly throughout the Bell Jar. Arguably she uses it to create a similar effect to Sartre (and indeed part of the significance of the repeated use of the word "sick" is that she tropes on Sartre’s famous and shocking use of it). Like Sartre, she also wants to make imaginative connections between the individual, inner self, and the weight of social conventions and rules, which oppress her. (Oppression is what a social system does to individuals or groups in it. Not to be confused with repression or suppression). Plath uses terms drawn from these cultural critiques in her writing; for example she uses the terms "authentic" and "inauthentic."Laing was critical of the growing trend in mainstream psychiatric medicine towards Electro-Convulsive Therapy, (ECT) — or Electro-Shock Treatment (1945-50).
Women and Madness

In the fifties, women suffered far more from mental health disorders than men, and treatment often involved prescriptions for tranquillisers, such as Valium, or ECT. In entrenched cases, lobotomies were also practised. In effect the conventional wisdom was to drug, shock or surgically operate to reconcile the patient with the conventional social norm. Since women’s lives in post-war America were in many ways more constrained than men’s, the need for them to be reconciled to the imaginatively limited realities of the American Dream was more frequent than it was for most men. A comparison of The Bell Jar with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tends to down play the significance of gender in mental illness at this time. However, the usefulness of this comparison is in seeing that mental illness and enforced incarceration in a Mental Asylum is associated with belonging to a marginalized social group. In Kesey’s novel the first person narrator is Bromden, a member of a physically displaced and culturally dislocated tribe; a fact which isn’t given quite so much weight in the film version, due to the charismatic nature of Jack Nicholson’s performance in the role of McMurphy.

So at the time of Plath’s writing this novel the contemporary discourses about personality would emphasis notions of inner true self / authenticity and outer false self / inauthenticity, i.e. a divided self, and beyond that a deep divide between individual aspirations to truth and transcendence and social mechanisms of oppressive control. The political rhetoric which pitted the establishment (THEM) against the youth counter-cultural US was already developing in the early sixties.

The abject

However, since then other theories of the self have prevailed, and one in particular has been used in analysis of Plath’s work, namely Kristeva’s theory of the abject. Rather than a conceptualization of the self that envisages a divided vessel, Kristeva proposes that the self is constantly trying to maintain this sense of contained spatialized entity, but that the borders between the self and other are leaky and permeable. The self expels the "not self" but it can seep back in. So there is a constant struggle to define the boundaries of the self, and a continuous threat of invasion by those aspects of experience that the self prefers not to recognize as part of itself. Jacqueline Rose adopts this Kristevan approach in her reading of Plath’s career, and it works well in an analysis of The Bell Jar. If one were to pursue it, one would interpret the recurrent references to nausea as a desire to eject from the self those elements of society that Esther encounters but does not wish to own or be a part of. The incident when she goes up onto the roof and throws her entire wardrobe of expensive clothes out onto the New York streets below could also be interpreted through Kristeva’s essay "On Horror." Interestingly, Margaret Atwood in The Edible Woman and Surfacing (and also in her later retrospective novel Cat’s Eye, 1989) also lends herself to both critical discourses; her female protagonists too could be described in terms of displaying classic symptoms of the divided self, but they could also be analysed in terms of the abject.

The Theatre and its Double

One further aspect in literary versions of the divided self is that the sense of division in the protagonist is often conveyed by a textual double, who is a grim, dark mirror image of the protagonist. Thus Esther has Joan: "Joan was the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me.""(217) However Joan becomes associated with the abject, when Esther walks in on her and DeeDee: "her thoughts were not my thoughts, nor her feelings my feelings, but we were close enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own." (231) The fascination with the role of the double was famously explored in Artaud’s The Theatre and its Double (1964), which would be a useful text to consult — again to get a feel for the specific cultural atmosphere at the time.

The Crisis in Woman’s Identity

This subheading is taken from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, where it is the heading for the chapter where she discusses what it felt like to be a young woman at Smith College in 1942; and where she demonstrates that the current generation of seniors at Smith College in 1959 were no less terrified by the question: "Is this really what I want to be?" I’ve written about this in the chapter on "Gender in American literature and culture," so I won’t repeat myself here. If you haven’t yet seen what I have to say there, you can check it out for yourselves. But I do still believe that Friedan’s analysis of "the problem that has no name" is very persuasive and indeed accurate for that generation of middle class, white American women. Towards the end of The Feminine Mystique she glosses it thus:

The problem that has no name — which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacity — is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any know disease. Consider the high incidence of emotional breakdown of women in the "role crises" of their twenties and thirties; the alcoholism and suicides in their forties and fifties; the housewives’ monopolization of all doctors’ time. Consider the prevalence of teenage marriages, the growing rate of illegitimate pregnancies, and even more seriously, the pathology of mother-child symbiosis. (318)

She recognized the symptoms, although it is disputable whether her solutions were radical enough for the problem as it presented itself. However, it is very useful to compare her study with Plath’s novel, since both can be read as precursors to or in the vanguard of second wave feminism, rather than fully participating in it. (Atwood’s Edible Woman presents a similar case, whereas Marge Piercy’s work is self-consciously of the New Left and feminist).

Female Sexuality

Another way of reading this text is not to see it as a prescient analysis of all those issues second wave feminists would engage with in the late sixties through to early eighties; but rather to read it in terms of the related women’s liberation movement. This is a young woman’s novel, and one could argue that the focus is not on the role of women in American post-war society and how constricting that is, but rather it is a one issue narrative: the issue being whether Esther can have sex before marriage, or sex without marriage. Personally I think the novel is both, and this is partly because of the extraordinary stylistic control. However, it would be possible to argue that the real issue here is about the double standard in sexual behaviour, and the ways in which Esther’s mother and other women of her generation (e.g. Mrs Willard) try to police her sexual freedom. There is a fear of motherhood but a desire for sexual experience on an equal basis with that permitted to young men driving this narrative forward. Part of the resolution of Esther’s story is to solve this contradiction by obtaining reliable contraception from a sympathetic doctor, despite her unmarried status. Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives deals with similar issues retrospectively, and would make an excellent second text if anyone wanted to do a comparative study of the treatment of issues surrounding female sexuality in the fifties and sixties.

Personal Neurosis or Public Performance?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for treason on June 19 1953, having been convicted of passing the secret of the atomic bomb to the Russians. (Was it a coincidence that the only Americans to be electrocuted for treason in the twentieth century were Jews?) Is Plath writing a confessional narrative where she quite inappropriately tries to claim that her experience of depression and ECT is comparable to the Rosenberg’s case? Or can we argue that we can only understand what she is doing when we place Esther’s breakdown in the large political context? I believe the latter. The "bell jar" which descends over Esther is a way of describing what it feels like to live in what Robert Lowell described as "the tranquillized fifties" in "Memories of West Street and Lepke." The effectiveness of social control of female sexuality is intensified by the widespread atmosphere of fear caused by McCarthyism: this is a decade when pressure to conform to social norms is enforced at the highest level and in public. To be deviant, or even to fear that one might be deviating from the norm, in itself would induce further fear in this era. Plath analyses how this affects the individual psyche, but she indicates the larger social picture through allusion to the Rosenbergs for example. However one might feel inside, the lesson of her six months away from college is that one must perform normality, that one must keep that mask in place, whatever abject condition it covers up.

The Marilyn Syndrome

See Norman Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates, or Madonna! A comparative study of Plath and Marilyn Monroe would also reveal how women in the fifties and sixties were under pressure to perform an artificially fashioned version of femininity. One aspect of this was that they were expected to remain chaste and innocent; as indicated by the dyed blond hair, which connotes purity. They were to be perfect wives, housewives and indeed mothers; yet they were also to be pleasing objects for the male gaze. Somehow they also needed to suggested sexuality and be objects of male sexual desire. Somehow they had to negotiate the fine line between virgin (with the fear of spinsterhood) and whore, (with the fear of not catching a good mate and through marriage entering fully into the civic order). So women must always perform the perfect balance of irreconcilable roles. The possibility of just being one’s authentic self, free of social constraints and fashioned gender roles did not seem to offer itself in this world. As Laing said: in a divided self, the "’inner’ self […] is occupied in maintaining its identity and freedom by being transcendent, unembodied, and thus never to be grasped, pinpointed, trapped, possessed. Its aim is to be a pure subject, without any objective existence." (94-5) And he also states: "Everyone in some measure wears a mask," (95) and yet I can’t help but think that the mask of femininity is so much more constraining that even Laing realized. And of course the point of quoting from Laing is to suggest how suicide is the logical solution if this is how personality is conceived. In the Epilogue to Mailer’s An American Dream, the first person narrator, Rojack, picks up the phone and dials Cherry, who has died in the final chapter after being badly beaten up for her involvement with Rojack. This is the conversation which ends that novel:

I was safe in the city – no harm would come to me there – it was only in the desert that death would come up like a scorpion with its sting. If anyone wished to shoot me, he might have me here. But no one did, and I wandered on, and found a booth by the side of the empty road, a telephone booth with a rusty dial. Went in and rang up and asked to speak to Cherry. And in the moonlight, a voice came back, a lovely voice, and said, "Why, hello, hon, I though you’d never call. It’s kind of cool right now, and the girls are swell. Marilyn says to say hello. We get along, which is odd, you know, because girls don’t swing. But toodle-oo, old baby-boy, and keep the dice for free, the moon is out and she’s a mother to me." Hung up and walked on back to the city of jewels, and thought before I left the spires, might go out to call her one more time. But in the morning, I was something like sane again, and packed the car, and started on the long trip to Guatemala and Yucatán. (252)

Helen M Dennis