Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” employs many of the same confessional techniques and themes of her poetic work. While the novel is confessional, it is also provides sociological commentary (and insight) into the processes of medical treatment and the social ostracization and victimization of the mentally ill.
A basic technique used in the novel, by Plath, is to present a seemingly “normal” world and then, by way of internal monologue and character development, allow the reader to glimpse a highly studied and carefully described portrayal of the way that mental illness impacts both society and the individual.
By expressing a personal encounter with metal illness, Plath, through the character of Esther, presents a ‘case study” in clinical depression and bipolar disorder without resorting to clinical diagnoses or psychological language or theories. Instead, her literary interpretation of mental illness functions to expand the clinical understanding of mental disorders by providing cognitive insight into the experienced phenomena of mental illness.
The opening line of the novel: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer the electrocuted the Rosenbergs” (Plath, 1) reveals the novel’s essential theme and conflict: that of the individual who stands “outside looking in” with regard to their society: it is a theme of psychological rather than physical exile, though Esther identifies, via the powerful verb “electrocuted,” with the physical suffering of the Rosenbergs who were tried and executed for espionage and treason.
Because the central conflict in “the Bell Jar” is internal, Plath constructs a dynamic and multi-faceted character whose preoccupations range from fashion, to dating, to the themes of great literature and to the essential meanings of life and death. Throughout the novel more is shown than told; that is, Plath refrains from divulging information about Esther directly; instead, she constructs scenes which transmit the internal character conflicts through symbolism and metaphor. A clinical diagnosis of Esther’s mental illness can be made by deeply exploring the literary techniques of the novel.
The novel’s plot is relatively simple: a young, ambitious, and very talented woman wins a summer internship as a big-time New York magazine. While in New York, the young woman, Esther, suffers a series of unpleasant and often dangerous situations, begins to feel sense of hypocrisy and unhappiness in herself and in the world of glamour-publishing and seems to rebel against this hypocrisy (and sexism) by quitting her internship and throwing her expensive wardrobe out of her hotel window.
Then, after returning to the suburbs to live with her mother, and failing to begin both her hoped-for novel and her college thesis, Esther begins to act increasingly erratically and self-destructively, severing her relationships and losing touch with her own creativity and ambition, until she is referred to a psychiatrist. Esther, however, is not psychologically unstable due to weakness or deformation: this is clear from the novel’s portrayal of her as a bright and shining and talented “golden girl” who wins poetry prizes and scholarships and is dating a medical student and writing term papers on Joyce.
After being treated with electroshock therapy, Esther’s condition and crisis become more and more severe until she attempts suicide, is “saved,” and sent to a mental hospital where she again receives electroshock therapy. The novel fails to provide any concrete resolution to Esther’s crisis, and in doing so, avoids making any determination about the benefits of Esther’s clinical diagnoses and treatment.
However, the emotional arc of the narrative can certainly be said to move toward the positivistic and there are potentialities and capacities that are reinstated into Esther’s character after her treatment. To fully understand the process of Esther’s breakdown (and apply a clinical diagnosis), the reader must read deeply into the novel and consider deeply the relationships of the characters and the cross-ties adn relationships which fluctuate, not to the rhythms of a traditional novel’s story-arc, but to the weird rhythms of Esther’s own mental illness.
In fact, the narrative is structured very similarly to a poem in that metaphorical and symbolic expression convey the essential dynamics of the story’s themes at a far more attenuated level than the conventional storytelling elements of plot, conflict, and resolution. Of the latter, Plath conspicuously avoids classical execution; for example, “The Bell Jar” posits no clear antagonist, no externalized central conflict, and refrains from set-closure at its climax. This is a way by which the clinical diagnosis of Esther’s diagnosis can be made.
Her initial relationships portrayed in the novel include a “mentor” in New York, the editor Jaycee, an “older sister” friend named Doreen, a fiancee named Buddy, and a literary mentor and benefactress named Philomena Guinea who was is a wealthy, famous novelist. Each of the relationships reflects an aspect of the healthy personality: ambitious, creative, socially engaged, and creative. Also, Esther’s erotic drive, while never posited in the novel as “resolvable” decreases until she is able to view sex as only an oppressive act against women.
As Esther’s plight worsens, each of the relationships is severed. The clinical diagnosis which seems most applicable to Esther Greenwood would be that of clinical depression and a bipolar personality. Interestingly enough, bipolar disorder is often associated with creative minds and artists. read at one level, “The Bell Jar” describes the plight of the artistic mind in modern society as well as the plight of the artistic mind gripped by clinical mental illness.
The key to separating where the individualist, the artist and rebel lies in Esther Greenwood and where the “madwoman,” the victim of a clinical mental illness lies is to apply rigorous methodology to the explication of the novel as a piece of literature. One such scene, which is representative of this technique used throughout “The Bell Jar,” is the scene when Esther, having traveled to new York upon winning an internship at a famous fashion magazine, throws her expensive wardrobe out of her hotel window.
“The wind made an effort, but failed, and a batlike shadow sank toward the roof garden of the opposite penthouse” (Plath, 90). Such compressed and highly symbolic language forwards both character development (Esther is mentally unstable) as well as foreshadowing with the bat representing death and Esther’s ultimate plunge into attempted suicide. There is no gaiety in the scene, which if in evidence would suggest a triumphant rejection of the superficialities described in the novel about the fashion-district of New York and Esther’s experiences there.
Instead, a sens of doom pervades, along with a sense of self-destruction and psychological instability: “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, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark hart of New York. ” (Plath 91). This single scene stands as emblematic of Esther’s (and Plath’s) essential plight: that of the bipolar personality and the track toward attempted suicide.
The scene also represents the symptomatic progression of full-blown bipolar personality disorder which is characterized by depressive episodes and suicidal obsessions. The combination of high-achievement, goal-setting, ambition, creativity, task-setting, and personal expression with an equally profound sense of purposelessness, meaninglessness, lack of energy, lack of sex drive, and plummeting self identity and a plummeting sense of self-esteem are compressed brilliantly into the above-described scene. By explicating the symbolism deeply, the bipolar disorder is easily uncovered.
The feelings Esther has of not being able to connect with her life, of not comprehending her society or valuing her interpersonal relationships are aspects of the acute depressive crisis which marks the depressive “extreme” of the bipolar disorder. The novel describes how an acute depressive episode can lead to suicide even when treatment is being administered. The treatment which would seem most applicable for Esther Greenwood by modern diagnostic processes is not that which is provided for her in the novel: electroshock therapy.
Rather, what is indicated is that Esther should be treated with psycho therapy, primarily, with perhaps the inclusion of certain, limited medication. The inclusion of family-centered therapy, social rhythm therapy, and cognitive therapy along with medication would provide the best hope for Esther’s clinical recovery. However, the process of metal disorder described in the novel is mush wider, much more comprehensive than even modern therapies would seem to be an adequate redress for — although even a slight improvement in prognosis would probably have saved Esther from suicide.
In order to restore and strengthen hern creative gifts and reinstate her standing in society, the clinical treatments might at least give Esther an impetus toward a healthy rather than self-destructive life. So carefully designed is Esther’s portrayal in “The Bell Jar,” that the reader stands an ever-increasing chance of identifying as deeply with Esther’s plight as Esther herself seems to identify with the plight of the Rosenbergs.
In other words, the last thing which is intimated in the novel is that Esther bears any personal responsibility for her mental illness or the social stigmas that are attached to it. In fact, I personally do not belive that there was anything Esther could have done or should have done to “prevent” her collapse. From rape to institutionalized chauvinism and the “saint-whore” syndrome, Esther experiences a multitude of the sociological injuries borne against women in America.
She also, as a poet, stands for the sociological persecution of artists and the cultural misunderstanding of their sensitivities. Throughout the novel, Esther’s internal dialogue and descriptions of situations stands in bold contrast to the mundane and often mean or ignorant dialogue and observations of the novel’s minor characters. In addition to these deeper, more socially and politically inspired themes, “ The Bell Jar” captures intimate details of middle-class adolescence: the struggle to succeed, the position often social outcast, and the cruelties and injustices of love and eroticism.
This is why The Bell Jar is such an important novel: because it places an intimately personal, yet universal, protagonist in the grip of what modern psychology and modern psychiatry understand as a clinical mental illness. Rather than approach the topic clinically, Plath approaches the theme poetically and confessionally and draws the reader into a closes identification with Esther Greenwood. The result is that the alert reader, even one who is familiar with the clinical processes of bipolar disorder, will recognize a personal plight beneath the level which is clinically descriptive.
The reader’s identification with Esther then takes the form of first hope, then skepticism, about the clinical treatments (and practitioners) which are engaged ostensibly in working for Esther’s recovery. Whether one reads the central theme of The Bell Jar as one of individuality and the alienation from modern society or as a literary portrayal of a clinically defined mental disorder, the conclusion that individuals who suffer from mental illness are both victimized and stigmatized in modern society is clear.
My personal feeling is that Esther Greenwood is far more of a universal character than many would like to belive and that her portrayal in The Bell Jar indicates both the destructive influence of mental illness and the destructive influence of modern society which is revealed to be both widespread and institutionalized. References Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar Bantam Books New York NY 1971.
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