Descent Into Insanity: Life Under “The Bell Jar” of Sylvia Plath

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In many ways, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar allowed me to make better sense of why we sometimes feel so shitty.  Or rather, that there sometimes really is no “why” to our sudden preference to stay in the comfort of our bed for hours on end, ignoring whatever form of communication that comes our ways even from the ones we love most. Plath’s description of the main protagonist Esther Greenwood and her descent into insanity was at times too real, depicting scenes that resembled too much of my own life. Seeing Esther bathe herself as a form of purification reminded me of the many times during the fall of 2014 when I too would shower twice, sometimes three times, a day because I found refuge in the slightly searing water pouring down on me. Through Sylvia Plath’s work, my formerly unexplained feelings of disengagement became a bit more understandable as I realized that such feelings don’t need any particular cause. Sometimes, you just feel like shit and you don’t need any particular reason to validate that. You just feel it.

While The Bell Jar already works as a novel that can stand on its own through its in-depth examination of the human psyche as it undergoes a state of depression, we as readers cannot help but draw even stronger connections between this work of literature and our lives when we consider its semi-autobiographical nature. Though Sylvia Plath received a great amount of praise for her poems, it seems that the combination of other critical rejections as well as other pressures soon factored into her decision to end her life. Or rather, “in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself [was] the bad dream” that she chose to escape. For many, Plath’s The Bell Jar is the female counterpart to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a rite of passage novel, but one that captures what it means to realize both the infinite possibilities and limitations of the world.

And it is this very paradox of infinite possibilities and limitations that drives Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of our story, into a paralysis from which only suicide is the only escape. Throughout the novel, she shows a desire to experience all, even that which is mutually exclusive (i.e. her desire to live in the city and the country), while simultaneously growing apathetic towards the world. The self-realization of the world’s limitations and her own unhappiness detaches her from the world, placing her in an existence where death slowly becomes more and more tantalizing.  

Plath allows us to understand this paradox of the world’s infinite possibilities and infinite limitations, as well as the state of paralysis that Esther is drawn into, when Esther visualizes “life branching out before me like the green fig tree…”:

“From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… 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… the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet…”

Though Esther is characterized early in the novel as a woman with extraordinary literary talent, with great promise in her future, she still undergoes life in the bell jar. Plath uses Esther’s character as a person with a fruitful future to undermine the preconceived ideas that we as readers have about depression.  Esther’s depression doesn’t occur out of a result of pressing circumstances but reluctance to pigeonhole herself into one determined future.  The imagery of the figs allows us to imagine each of these lives as within her reach so long as she can decide on it.  But that is exactly the problem for her.  She will not choose one in fear of losing all the others.  Plath’s description of Esther as “starving to death” then becomes interesting because the starvation is not something put onto her but rather a result of her own paralysis.

At the same time that Esther is realizing life’s limitations, she becomes more and more apathetic towards the world, even towards her own achievements.  As she sits in one of the auditoriums in the UN, next to her Russian quasi-lover, she thinks “that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old… in spite of the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons and the water-color lessons… I had never been really happy again.”  It was at that young age of nine, running through white beaches, that she spent her last summer with her father before his death.  Though this seems important to Esther’s personhood, his death is only touched upon in this scene and whether it shares a causal relationship with depression remains unknown.  

What Esther gives us instead is a detailed account of the following years of unhappiness, focusing once again not on any of life’s difficulties, but all of her mother’s efforts to make life enjoyable.  From Girl Scouts to piano lessons, to water-color lessons and sailing camp, Esther is seen to have had it all, except the very thing that these activities were aiming to give her: a life of happiness. Plath uses this moment in the novel, Esther’s self-realization of her unhappiness, for us to understand depression as a subtle, rather than explicitly apparent, state of existence. The bell-jar under which Esther lives is exactly as we imagine it, a glass encasement, and if you can imagine yourself living in it, you can then understand how you will miss its existence for most of your life, until you look up and realize that the sky does in fact look distorted. That you are, in fact, living in the bell jar. This sentence works in exactly that manner, where Esther is positioned in a moment of self-reflection and it suddenly hits her too, that all of these past years have been absent of happiness.  

Plath expands the bell-jar metaphor in moments when Esther seems not distant from the world due to her growing apathy but literally removed from it, as if there existed a physical barrier between Esther and the world surrounding her. As she watches the busy nightlife of New York City from her hotel room, she says:

“The silence depressed me.  It wasn’t the silence of silence.  It was my own silence… I knew perfectly well the cars were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing.” 

Beyond the separation that already exists between the world below her and herself, Esther experiences this moment of auditory distance, where she knows that the world is moving and making noise, and yet she can’t “hear a thing”.  By focusing on the distance between Esther and the world, Plath allows us to understand that under the bell jar, one is essentially removed from the act of living, left only to observe.  It seems too that this isolation foreshadows Esther’s eventual admittance into the asylum.  Without any connection to the world or a desire to interact with it, Esther is left with no identity for self other than what she expresses when she says:

“I am an observer”

Under this existence of unhappiness and withdrawal from the world, as a constant state of living, we can almost understand the temptation that death is to Esther. Yet, death represents this temptation to Esther not because of its escape, but because it offers the possibility of a second rebirth. At the beginning of the novel, we are slowly introduced to this idea when Esther undergoes a baptism-like ritual in the tub of her hotel. It is when she enters into this hot water that she says “Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Sheperd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more.  I don’t know them, I have never known them and I am very pure”. Plath’s specific language of “dissolving”, “pure”, and her later explicit reference to “baptism or the waters of Jordan” draws a unique picture of death, baptism, and rebirth. We are led into the water, where the world around her begins to dissolve. And yet, as the world around her dissolves and she realizes that everything no longer matters, the representation of death, she becomes purified and rises back above the waters, reborn.

This occurs again when Esther, during the scene where she skis down the mountain, taking in the exhilaration of the speed, says:

“’This is what it means to be happy.’…People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.”

Once again, Plath uses a unique combination of death and rebirth imagery, but this time with the explicit statement that “this is what it means to be happy.” The language describing the world around her parallels the “dissolving” that occurs in the tub scene only too well, where we see people and trees becoming nothing but “dark sides.” At the end of it all, there lies the “bright point,” the light at the end of the tunnel so often related to death and yet, instead of death, we are met with a “the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly,” the imagery of birth. Plath’s juxtaposition of death and birth works to allow us to understand how Esther perceives death, not so much as an escape but as a rebirth into the world. The desire for the death isn’t then an inexplicable impulse but an understandable temptation to start anew in another life beyond the bell jar.

This theory of the rebirth through death becomes even more important when we consider the last page of the novel, in which Esther says “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice–patched, retreaded and approved for the road.” After her long endured removal from the world in the asylum and eventual return to it, she considers herself now to be reborn, but this time “approved for the road,” as if the existence that she held before wasn’t fit to live in that world.

In many ways, Plath’s The Bell Jar allows us to better understand the human psyche as it undergoes an existence under the bell jar that is depression. Esther’s own self-realization that she cannot experience all that life offers and the subsequent self-awareness of her unhappiness creates the glasswork that ultimately removes her from the world and forces her to seek an alternative to that life. It is because of Plath’s masterful portrayal of Esther’s descent into insanity, haunting not through its content but because she draws us into its rationality, that The Bell Jar will remain an American classic for readers seeking to understand what may sometimes seemingly be the irrational human psyche.

Brandon Torres

Brandon is a current Education/English special major student, with hopeful plans to eventually share his passion for these subjects with both high school and middle school students. Though he dreams of publishing a novel one day, he spends a considerable amount of his time fantasizing about being a novelist rather than well, actually writing.

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