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Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar and feminism

September 27, 2021

"What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb", Sylvia fearlessly thundered in her only published novel “The Bell Jar”. Published in 1963, Jar is one of the prominent texts on feminism and the vocalisation of a woman’s apprehensions, rights and freedom. Sylvia’s words, like brazen dagger, are used today in protest marches as well as analysed in literary circles.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Jar stands as testimony to the ephemeral skills of Sylvia as a writer. She took everyday objects and turned them into metaphors and similes that resonated with the soul. Her poetry is acclaimed for this and even in Jar, it can be noticed.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

The metaphor of the fig tree represents her apprehension of being a failure in life inspite of all wonderful possibilities within her arms reach, due to doubt or uncertainty on her part. Most of us have felt this way atleast once in our lives and it is the spontaneity and common grounds of consolation that we find ourselves on with Sylvia that lends this metaphor its potency.

The silence depressed me, It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

Depression, self-doubt and mental illness forms recurrent and central themes in the novel. It reveals a vulnerable and wounded side of a woman. Sylvia openly writes about judging other women, an encounter with a misogynist that almost ended in rape, a subtle rejection, being embarrassed, wardrobe negotiations, mischiefs, and other “vulgarities” and trivialities of life with such eloquence, it is impressive.

My mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.

Jar is brimming with such wonderful similes and analogies.

Yet, what shines through in these lyrical sentences is the experiences that gave rise to them. Plath, known for a class of poetry called confessional poetry, struggled with clinical depression and turbulence in her life. Sample this:

“I felt it was very important not to be recognized.”

It is not difficult to picture Slyvia in place of Miss Esther Greenwood, the protagonist in Jar. Sylvia’s handful but potent poetry is still considered first class material in English literature and speaks against women oppression, freedom, rights, marriage, sexuality, child rearing and so forth. “Ariel” is considered the best among her collection which shot her into the limelight. Published in 1965 posthumously.

ON CHILDREN

Children made me sick.

Despite this, she bore two of them. What was it? The overpowering of her rebellious spirit by the craving of motherly love or the overpowering of her rebellious spirit by the current of societal norms?

If I had to wait on a baby all day, I would go mad.
A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.

I have noticed that men have a general desperation in speaking on these matters as if in a vain attempt to get rid of the guilt of not being the one who bears the child. Now, men are not at fault of being selected by natural selection to be the sperm donor. But the point is, this doesn’t give men a right to speak on matters that they cannot really experience. The best way to behave for a man, IMHO, would be to be respectful and kind towards the other, even if it is not justified. That is chivalry, isn’t it?

ON MEN

With Ted Hughes

With Ted Hughes

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way.
I felt the first man I slept with must be intelligent, so I would respect him.

I like this woman.

ON HERSELF, BEING A WOMAN AND FIGHTING MENTAL DEPRESSION

The silence between us was so profound I thought part of it was my fault.

While walking with a girl who, like her, had won a month long scholarship to New York. They were on uneasy terms. A passing note, men are different from women in this regard. Even if two are arch nemesis of one another, they’ll still receive each other with open arms and whole hearts. Disdain and competition is, and should be, confined to the profession.

What did I think was wrong?
That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.

Wow.

On receiving electrotherapy at a mental asylum.

I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

Multiple suicide attempts (tried to drown, swallowed pills, slit her veins) and descend into mental deterioration.

“I knew when I was beaten.”
“I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.”
“I am, I am, I am.”

DISAGREEMENTS

What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?
Doctor Nolan paused. Then she said, “Tenderness”.

Ugh. Men can be tender too. I know it.

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard’s kitchen mat.

What sort of men were you hanging out with, dear?

THE CHARACTER OF MISS ESTHER GREENWOOD

Bell Jar was received with mixed acclaims and disdain by critiques. Perhaps, because of the explicit description in the second half of the book inspired by Plath’s own multiple suicide attempts and experiences of treatment at a mental institution. The first half is commendable and novel in its own right as she draws a picture of her protagonist as an independent, hopeful young woman. She is loud and vocal and indifferent to societal norms pertaining to female etiquette.

I hate handing over money to people for doing what I could just as easily do myself, it makes me nervous.

Sylvia constructs her character not as a woman a man would be pleased to read about but as a woman as she really is.

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.

She shamelessly admits her craving for jewellery and clothes and food. How she plots and strategises on the dinner table to have all of the caviar without sharing with her friends.

RELEVANCE OF ‘THE BELL JAR’

I see Jar as a touchbearer for a different interpretation of life, society and the status quo. Feminists, especially young ones, express their pleas in a manner that subtly blames man for all the trouble and misery and so forth. I think that is wrong and malformed. Man never asked for any of his roles in the natural order of things. If the woman think they are ill-treated (and I acknowledge that) then so is man. It certainly offends me the way some think of feminism as a “Us versus them” debate. The real monster is the set of ideas that dictate disparity and discrimination based on gender. It must be noted, and this is important, that such ideas can flourish in any human’s mind, irrespective of gender. I think texts like Jar empowers people, especially men to introspect and correct themselves. As Plath knew, nobody is perfect. This is why I think Jar should be read by more men than women today.

THE SYLVIA PLATH SYNDROME & ARTISTIC EXPRESSION

“The Sylvia Plath Syndrome” is a condition of severe mental illness that plagues an artist and threatens their life. Her explicit suicide, at the tender age of 30, by shoving her head in an oven while her two children were in another room, is evidence of the untold difficulties that woman had to go through, that is, until Sylvia stood up and chose to protest them. The thorny questions it raises even today is: Where do we go wrong? To coerce a young soul into such pain that the only escape they see befitting is taking their own lives? Are we any different today? How are we safeguarding artistic creativity and freedom today?

CONCLUSION

“The Bell Jar” is a text repeatedly held to light and examined from different prisms. It is a text debunking the ideal woman figure and casting her in a new light, as a real woman with her flaws and strengths. Together with pioneers like Simone de Beauvoir (“The Second Sex”) and Virginia Woolf (“A Room of One’s Own”), young Sylvia Plath stands in great company and continues to inspire both young men and women alike.

Basil | @itbwtsh

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