Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 14 February 2013

“my heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my ears. I am I am I am.”

i don’t remember if i knew her first as novelist or poet or myth. perhaps some combination. certainly she was (is?) an example: the dangers of transgressive mental and emotional energies, the failed paragon of domestic self-restraint.

for 50 years we have lived, all of us, in a world without Sylvia Plath. for 50 years we have lived, all of us, in a world with The Bell Jar.

in revisiting Plath’s only novel, published under a pseudonym just weeks before her death on 11 february 1963, i was bowled over by the clarity of her language and the immediacy of her experience. the trappings are dated, sure, but the portrait of Esther Greenwood, young all-american girl wonder, remains viciously relevant.

there’s the dead difficult weight of promise, expectation. famously, the fig tree scene. but Plath is so much more subtle than that. Esther’s litany of accomplishments sounds much like the regular rat race that high school kids endure in hopes of getting ahead: “I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me. I was college correspondent for the town Gazette and editor of the literary magazine and secretary of Honor Board… I had a well-known woman poet and professor on the faculty championing me for graduate school at the biggest universities in the east, and promises of full scholarships all the way, and now I was apprenticed to the best editor on an intellectual fashion magazine” (31-32).

Esther is meant to conquer the world. yet the prospect leaves her empty and dull. when her summer internship in new york ends, the occasion is commemorated with portrait photos of each of the girls. “When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. ‘Oh, sure you know,’ the photographer said. ‘She wants,’ said Jay Cee wittily, ‘to be everything'” (101). what an enormous burden for anyone to carry, not only to be everything, but to want it as well. Esther rebels in the best way she knows how: “I said I wanted to be a poet. Then they scouted about for something for me to hold” (101).  and then they ask her to smile – that insidious demand that women project project project contentment, fake if nothing else – and Esther dissolves. to be a poet is to have nothing to hold onto. and yet because all of this attention and promise and expectation have been lavished upon her, Esther cannot escape the pressure to perform. when she says – in indirect speech, no less – that she doesn’t know what she wants to be, her mentor airily puts words in her mouth, recasting that uncertainty and hesitation into an “everything,” into too much.

i see my own difficulties, and those of others i know, reflected back across half a century. Esther is told to want everything and she doubts. does she? she doesn’t know. after her return home, Esther ponders how to spend the rest of her summer: a course at Harvard? working on her honors thesis? no, maybe junk the thesis and dispense with the honors? oh, the coursework is different, well maybe junk the university altogether and go to the local college? that coursework is even harder, well maybe quit school and get a job? be a waitress or a typist? (123-125). but Esther can’t stand any of these options. and yet, i look at this list and it sounds like the noise in my own head on any given day. i can be this and this and this or i should be this or i can’t live up to that so i’ll just do this instead. or or or. i did everything well enough but i don’t know. all of this and then too find a man, be a wife, be a mother.

to be a hollow woman into whom the ambition to be everything can be poured is not enough either. be attractive, be sexually available, be appropriate. in that required smile – that innocent but menacing photographer’s demand – in Esther’s problematic sexual drive, i see the same world i live in now.

perhaps the only breath of air in the book’s dismal second half, which chronicles Esther’s suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalizations, is her acquisition of birth control. “‘I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex…’ I was my own woman. The next step was to find the proper sort of man” (223).  and yet even that freedom, freedom, freedom that she finds is bounded.

the most shocking moment, for me, in The Bell Jar is Esther’s night out with Marco, a dazzling man who she compares to a caged snake, a “woman-hater” who fixates on her for the evening “not out of kindness or even curiosity, but because I’d happened to be dealt to him, like a playing card in a pack of identical cards” (106). Esther knows that she matters to him not at all, that to him all women are identical, to be treated with identical force. he leads her outside of the dance hall, they get into an argument. he pushes her into the mud. “Then he threw himself face down as if he would grind his body through me and into the mud. ‘It’s happening,’ I thought. ‘It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen.’ Marco set his teeth to the strap at my shoulder and tore my sheath to the waist. I saw the glimmer of bare skin, like a pale veil separating two bloody-minded adversaries. ‘Slut!’ The word hissed by my ear. ‘Slut!’ The dust cleared, and I had a full view of the battle. I began to writhe and bite” (109).

Esther does not decide to “do nothing,” but her initial response – it’s happening, it’s happening, it will happen – drew my mind back to Emily Heist Moss’s article from December 2012 on harassment and how women are conditioned to wonder if we are about to be attacked, if this is our rape. Heist Moss references this disturbingly ingenious comedy sketch by Ever Mainard – that “this is how it happens.” and the bright future and the decent upbringing and the good grades are no protection. 50 years of “it’s happening.” 50 years. the same story with different trappings.

the fixation on Plath’s biography is, often i think, a distraction technique. a way to say “look away!” and to not deal with the ugly social truths that she grapples with. successfully? un-? The Bell Jar is a dangerous book. dangerous in its honesty. forget about trying to map the novel onto the life of its author, the exercise will grant you nothing, not even a map. map it instead as all great literature, all great art, should be mapped. onto your life. let it resonate and stifle. and if it makes you uncomfortable or angry ask why rather than look away. Plath was brave enough to do so. she left us this much.

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am” (243).

[thanks to Amy Parker for link help. novel references are to the Harper Perennial Classics edition.]

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