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Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among literary critics to suggest that, despite being rather controversial, the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath represents high discursive value.
One of the reasons for this is that in her novel Plath was able to show that, contrary to what used to be the psychiatric convention of the fifties, one’s depression-triggering sense of inadequateness does not necessarily have to be linked to the particulars of the concerned person’s physical appearance. Therefore, there is indeed a good reason to refer to the mentioned novel as being intellectually enlightening. In my paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length.
Probably the most memorable aspect of Plath’s novel is the fact that it emanates the unmistakable spirit of ‘uncanniness,’ in the Freudian sense of this word (Freud 25). The rationale behind this suggestion is quite apparent – the fact that the novel’s narrator Esther ended up in a mental asylum, does not make any logical sense, whatsoever.
After all, it is not only that Esther was a good-looking young woman, but also at the novel’s beginning, she appears to have been on the path of attaining a social prominence – something that could have hardly caused her to begin descending into madness. As Esther pointed out: “I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America…” (Plath 3).
Nevertheless, as time went on, Ether began to feel increasingly uneasy with the fact that she did not quite understand the actual purpose of her life. The full soundness of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to Esther’s conversation with Jay Cee, during the course of which the narrator admitted that pursuing a career in journalism was not her ‘true calling’ – quite contrary to what she used believe initially: “Jay Cee: ‘What do you have in mind after you graduate?’ Ether: ‘I don’t know’” (Plath, 18).
One of the reasons for this is that having been born in a poor family, Ether used to be obsessed with the thought of proving its worthiness to everybody, as such that could not be discussed outside what accounted for the innately felt sense of self-identity, on her part.
As we learn from the novel, it was specifically Ether’s success in securing more and more scholarships, which helped her a great deal, in this respect: “What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems” (Plath 18).
In other words, Esther became mentally fixated on ensuring her continual academic progress to such an extent that the thought of choosing in favor of a particular professional career and starting up a family, had ceased to make much of a logical sense to the character in question. It is understood, of course, that this contributed towards the process of Ether growing ever more mentally unstable rather substantially.
After all, as psychologists are well aware of, for just about anyone to be able to enjoy its life, he or she must perceive it as the actual tool of self-actualization. Because Esther used to go about achieving this by the mean of qualifying for more and more scholarships, the very idea that there would eventually be the time when she will no longer be required to do this, was naturally causing her much of an emotional distress – hence, contributing to Esther’s innately felt sensation of lowliness.
There was another reason for Esther’s unconscious anxiety, in this respect, to grow increasingly serious – the fact that the highly sociable lifestyle that she started to pursue in New York, did not correlate with what happened to be the narrator’s psychological phenotype of an introvert. After all, there can only be a few doubts that, as the novel implies, it was named by the mean of applying a strong mental effort that Esther used to be able to socialize with her friends and acquaintances.
What it means that throughout her stay in New York, Esther was forced to act in the manner inconsistent with her genetically predetermined predisposition to study alone, as something that had a value of a ‘thing in itself.’ Partially, this explains the significance of the novel’s scene, in which Esther decides to get rid of her expensive dresses, in the sporadic gesture of ‘self-liberation: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off” (Plath 59).
This once again suggests that, while becoming suicidal, Ether was the least concerned with what happened to be the externally observable ‘inadequateness’ of her physical appearance. Quite on the contrary – it was specifically due to the fact that Esther’s good looks used to be referred to by the rest of the novel’s characters (such as Buddy Willard), as the proof of her ‘normalness’ (in the social sense of this word), that she could not help but to grow increasingly alienated from the socially projected image of herself.
Therefore, there is nothing odd about the discussed novel’s controversial soundness – many readers refuse to believe that there can be a good reason for just about anyone to feel depressed, for as long as the concerned person is young, healthy and socially successful.
Apparently, the same could be said about Esther’s first psychiatrist Doctor Gordon, who due to having himself been a physically normal/healthy individual, tended to assume that there must be a rational reason for an individual to succumb to depression, and for as long as there are none, he or she cannot be feeling mentally inadequate, by definition.
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While exposed to his euro-centric rationality, Esther would immediately begin to doubt that there was anything wrong with her – hence, the narrator’s reluctance to talk about what did bother her in front of him: “I told Doctor Gordon about not sleeping and not eating and not reading. I didn’t tell him about the handwriting, which bothered me most of all” (Plath 68).
Esther knew perfectly well that, had she complained about growing progressively incapable of knowing what the actual purpose of her life was, Doctor Gordon would have rejected this complaint out of hand, as something that did not need to be acknowledged.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon of many individuals finding it increasingly harder to bring some sense in their lives is much more common than people tend to assume. As the discussed novel implies, this can be referred to as the consequence of the fact that the conventions of what happened to be the currently predominant socio-cultural discourse, contradict the longing towards self-actualization, on the part of particularly sensitive men and women.
For example, back in the fifties, it used to be considered something rather self-evident that, upon having reached a certain age, women are supposed to get married and consequently – to give birth as to as many children, as possible. While rationalizing this idea, Esther could not find anything wrong with it – is a physically attractive woman; she naturally wanted to become a wife and mother.
However, as time went on, Esther began to realize that this would prove utterly inconsistent with the earlier mentioned strive towards self-fulfillment, on her part. In its turn, this was causing the novel’s narrator to experience the sensation of the so-called ‘cognitive dissonance’, especially given the fact Buddy Willard was there to ‘help’ her all along: “I… remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems anymore” (Plath 45).
We can well speculate that, in Esther’s own eyes, her physical appearance was deemed somewhat inconsistent with what she happened to be on the inside. After all, it did imply that Esther was thoroughly normal.
She, however, proved to be little too ‘beyond normal’ – hence, the character’s mental fixation on the execution of the Rosenbergs and her love of poetry. It was not the particulars of how Esther looked physically, which triggered the narrator’s suicidalness, but rather the fact that she was much too idealistically-minded, to become emotionally adjusted to the mechanical ways of the world.
In fact, it was namely to due to Ether’s unwillingness to cause any visible damage to her body, that she decided to refrain from slitting wrists, as one of the most painless ways to go: “When it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it… What I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at” (Plath 78).
Thus, the symbolic significance of the novel’s name – it refers to the actual target of the narrator’s suicidal attempts: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream” (Plath 124). Esther never wanted to kill herself on account of self-loathing, but rather on account of being consistently unable to become an integral part of the surrounding social reality.
This explains the sheer meticulousness, with which the narrator continued to address the task, despite having failed on several occasions – her decision to commit suicide was not emotionally-charged, but thoroughly rational. Had Esther’s physical appearance been the ‘culprit,’ this would not be the case.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the suggestion that one’s appearance often does not have anything to do with what happened to be the indications of a mental abnormality, on the concerned person’s part, is thoroughly consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. There is indeed no link between what the novel’s narrator appeared to be on the outside, on the one hand, and how she tended to act, on the other.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, London: Penguin Books Limited, 2003. Print.
Plath, Sylvia 1963, The Bell Jar. Web.