The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar #

The Bell Jar depicts disturbing emotions of formative sexual experiences. Selected as one of twelve young girls by a fashion magazine, given jobs for a month in New York, all expenses paid, plied with free gifts, beauty products, entertained by successful people in the field of their desires, as models for advertising, Plath depicts the emptiness and boredom of the sham glamourous lifestyle of pretentious celebrities.

Betsy Talbot Blackwell, Editor of Mademoiselle took plain young women to New York, where she put them in stylish clothes, restyled their hair and makeup and then put their pictures in her magazine, to “nourish young women inside and out” and indeed her first words of welcome to the 20 guest editors on that June morning included a plea to put “health before genius”.

Plath’s persona, Esther Greenwood, describes the girls,

on the sun-roof, yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans, and they seemed bored as hell. .. Bored with yachts and bored with flying around in aeroplanes and bored with skiing in Switzerland at Christmas and bored with men in Brazil.

She introduces Buddy Willard:

Buddy Willard went to Yale, .. but he was stupid. Oh he’d managed to get good marks all right..but he didn’t have a spark of intuition.

Buddy disparages poetry as so much “dust”. Later when Esther watches him cut up cadavers, she exclaims:

“They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people.

In a moment of self-realisation Esther Greenwood, the persona, experiences symptoms of The Imposter Syndrome:

A feeling of inadequacy where the subject feels fraudulent. The causes of imposter syndrome are complex, but perfectionism and family dynamics are believed to play a significant role.

Imposter Syndrome, can arise as a feeling of not having done enough to achieve perfection, often when you are surrounded by extremely competent people.

I felt very low. I had been unmasked only that morning by Jay Cee, herself, and I felt all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer. After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort or another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.

Later, when she she is called to downstairs to meet a visitor she feels self-conscious:

I didn’t think I deserved it. After all I wasn’t crippled. I just studied too hard. I didn’t know when to stop.

Further evidence of depression due to powerlessness occurs while sitting for an official photograph Plath admits:

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry…

When the photographer asks for a smile, she attempts one, but he protests:

“You look like you’re going to cry.”

I couldn’t stop and she buries her face in the pink velvet facade of Jay Cee’s love seat and with immense relief the slt tears….burst out into the room.

Later on a beach date with Cal, she askes him casually:

If you were going to kill yourself, how would you do it?

Cal seemed pleased.

I’ ve often thought of that. I’d blow my brains out with a gun.

Later Esther thinks that drowning might be the best way to die.

She admits that morning she had tried to hang herself, but she was not good at making knots and couldn’t find anywhere to attach the rope. (pg. 150 - 52)

When she wanders into a cemetery, Esther reflects on the fact that they have never visited his grave. Her mother hadn’t let them go to the funeral because she was only eight, so the graveyard and even his death seemed unreal to her. (159)

Writers write to discover themselves. Plath examines her past to find out who she is. We have to absorb tragedy rather than let tragedy absorb ourselves.

The following are Excerpts from Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson The Observer, Saturday 2, February 2013:

In many ways, the New York offered by Mademoiselle was like a stage set, an artificially constructed world that Sylvia knew was a sham. On 10 June, Sylvia and her fellow guest editors were invited to a formal party at the terrace room of the St Regis Hotel on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. On the surface, it was all rather lovely – in the restaurant, with its ceiling painted the colours of a sky at sunset. Sylvia enjoyed the music from two alternating bands. As each course of her dinner – shrimp, chicken, salad, then parfait – was taken away she was whisked on to the dance floor and, with a daiquiri in her hand, she could look down from the roof terrace across the glittering skyline of Manhattan.

Yet there was something not right about the evening. For a start, all the men, albeit young, handsome specimens, had been hired for the occasion by the magazine. As she went on to write in The Bell Jar, from an outside perspective a witness would assume she was having the time of her life. Wasn’t this the perfect example of the American Dream?

For 19 years, a girl from a poor background has lived in some nondescript town, wins a scholarship to a top college and “ends up steering New York like her own private car”.

Plath knew she should have been excited about the month in New York, but there was something wrong with her reactions. She felt hollow and lifeless and compared herself to the calm centre of a tornado, “moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”.

She is bouyed by her dreams - fantasies. When asked out by a Russian official at the UN, she imagines:

There I went again, building up a glamorous picture of a man who would love me passionately the moment he met me…”

Sylvia maintained that she enjoyed New York, yet the more time she spent in the city the more she realised that she had led a relatively sheltered existence. In a letter to her brother, she compared her relatively simple and straightforward life at Smith to the hyper-charged intensity of Manhattan. Sylvia described her time in New York as a deadly mix of “pain, parties, work” and it’s interesting to speculate on the significance and source of her suffering The agony she wrote about in this entry in her journal could refer to the anguish she felt when faced with a city she found alienating and altogether too modern for her sensitive soul.

On 20 June, at a country club dance in Forest Hills, she had met a Peruvian man, José Antonio La Vias, whom she described in her journal as “cruel”. She did not expand on this, nor did she detail how his cruelty manifested itself. All we know, from the brief entries she made on a 1953 calendar – which featured idyllic scenes of the cities and landscape of Austria – is that Sylvia returned to his apartment on the East Side. What happened there we will probably never know, but if we take The Bell Jar as our guide it seems as though Sylvia could have been the victim of a rape or a near rape.

In her novel, Bell Jar, Plath provides a devastating description of a sexual assault at a country club in the suburbs of New York involving Esther, her alter ego, and Marco, a wealthy Peruvian, and a friend of disc jockey Lenny Shepherd. On their first meeting, Esther cannot take her eyes off Marco’s diamond tiepin, which he hands over to her with the promise that, in exchange, he would perform some of kind of service “worthy of a diamond”. As he gives her the jewel, his fingers digging into the underside of her arm, Esther realises that Marco is a misogynist. “Women-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power,”.

Later that night, Marco hits her, repeatedly calls her a slut, rips off her dress and then forces himself upon her.

In the novel, Esther manages to beat him off, but is left dirtied, humiliated and abused, and on her return to the Amazon [the Barbizon] goes up to the roof of the hotel and throws all her clothes off the parapet. As she stands there, in the hour before dawn, she watches all her outfits – the outward symbols of her false self – disappear into the dark heart of Manhattan.

Earlier, Plath had written:

“how stupid I had I’d been to buy all those uncomfortble expensive clothes, hanging limp as a fish in my closet,”….

By discarding all her pretentious clothing, Esther attempts to live a more normal life.

Plath developed a strong sexual appetite that she felt bound to deny and hide in the name of feminine virtue, respectability, thus of course, hypocrisy, even as she went out on countless dates with aggressive, sometimes assaultive men.

The Bell Jar is loosely based on the time she was at college, attempted suicide, spent months in a mental asylum, treated by shock therapy and finally recovered.

Plath deals distantly with her interaction with other patients, nurses, doctors and Psychiatrists. It appears a full frank exposure of her mental issues, revealing the pros and cons of mental health treatment. One of closest fellow patients, also a former dating partner of Buddy ends up hanging herself, but Esther survives and returns to her academic studies.

In an interview with the BBC later Plath refers to the strong influence of fellow poets, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, who also wrote openly about the issues of mental illness on their poetic output.

This exposure of mental health issues is finally out in the open. People today readily talk about their visits to therapists as normal as visits to hairdressers. Yet cuts to mental health services are detrimental to society as a whole.