‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenberg’s, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
An odd line for the start of a book, I thought, upon reading the opening of The Bell Jar. I had read about Sylvia Plath before: sadist, suicide fanatic, suppressed artist, but never before had I read her novel which, upon further investigation, is undeniably about her life. A life characterised by such a sharp, unsettling sense of self-hatred as to make one quiver while reading. But this is only speculation.
Plath has been psychoanalysed to an inch of her life since her suicide in 1963. Sunday 14th January 2018 marked the 55th anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar and occasioned my desire to add my own share of interpretation. It would be easy for me to mythologise Plath as a suicide fanatic, majestically draped in a robe of madness, but this would serve to trivialise her torturous experiences of clinical depression. What is striking about Plath, however, is the way in which she spoke of death with such an ease of expression. This was a woman who was deeply enraptured by visions of her own destruction that were so intimately crafted and, ultimately, so memorably enacted.
When considering the biographical details of her life, the opening line of The Bell Jar becomes more comprehensible. It was the summer of Plath’s senior year at college, the summer where they ‘electrocuted the Rosenberg’s’, and where Plath received electroconvulsive therapy multiple times before her first medically-documented suicide attempt. Plath, like her protagonist Esther, was in New York interning at Mademoiselle, a job a lot of women would have died for, chasing a rather stilted version of the American dream. Surrounded by conflicting modes of American womanhood – the domestic homemaker of the 1950s, the secretary who was learned in shorthand but ultimately subject to a man’s dictation– Esther, and Plath, began the downward spiral of despondency.
In The Bell Jar, death is a longing, a desire, but also a real, proven, possibility. The novel is sharply inflected by sharp motes of Plath’s own brush with self-destruction. Anne Sexton wrote how she and Plath ‘talked death with burned-up intensity, both of [them] drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb.’ This metaphor of electricity is used time and time again. Esther feeds off the adrenalin, the electric feeling of seeing ‘redness flower from her wrists.’ The potent image of red vividly reminding us of its author, Plath – a woman bent on mutilating herself body and soul. The reality of hurting oneself is glamorised. A nightmarish image of sinking further into a blood-stained bath ‘under a surface gaudy as poppies’ is swallowed up, forgotten, as we are lulled asleep along with its victim.
The morbid lucidity of Esther’s moments of pain are shocking to the reader, but all the more pleasurable to their author. Esther plays a game with us, and equally with herself. How much pain can she inflict upon herself, and how much can we hurt as a consequence?
One of Plath’s most momentous attempts at suicide is described in The Bell Jar. Esther heaves her body into a gap in the cellar wall and, after swallowing her mother’s sleeping pills, lies still on the brink of oblivion. She describes how ‘‘The silence drew off, bearing the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep’’. Her fragile body, this vessel of ‘tatty wreckage’, is finally numbed, nearly engulfed and swept away with the tide, but is saved before extinction.
I said earlier that is was easy for one to mythologise Plath because in a way, she wanted us to do that. She said herself that The Bell Jar was a ‘throw[n] together’ series of events from her life that she focused upon ‘fictionalising to add colour.’ You can’t help but think that suicide is an assertion of power and character; the additional ‘colour’, the redness flowing from the wrist, needed to remedy a life lived in torment.
Esther’s fantasies of suicide are tied to famous fictional narratives. Death is a stage, and we the spectators. Madness becomes theatre. In Plath’s poem ‘Edge’, she writes:
‘The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment.’
This is a woman that has been prodded and preened and packaged up in an image of death. At last, perfected. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, a woman who has survived several acts of self-destruction, the cat with nine lives, says that,
‘Dying is like an art.
Like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.’
It is in these poems that I hear echoes of Plath’s own residual thoughts of suicide. It is she that is finally placed in the centre of the amphitheatre, here until the final close of the curtain, where her dead body will be brought onto the stage in full display.
23 Fitzroy Road. Previously home to W.B. Yeats, Plath moved here with her two children after her split with husband and poet laureate Ted Hughes. It was here that she was discovered after she had taken her own life.
Plath’s final collection of poems are characterised by what her daughter Frieda Hughes described as a ‘distinctive Ariel voice.’ Ariel is where Plath’s inner demons – rage, violence, punishment, fever – are tangibly personified and brought before us as an offering. You feel the energy of a tormented psyche in search of something deeper, darker, to ‘colour’ her life with catastrophe.
The electric imagery, the rage, returns, and then the numbing effect. The speaker of ‘A Birthday Present’ exclaims ‘My god, the clouds are like cotton’, a smothering, white expanse, muffling, nursing a wounded soul with the numbing effect of ‘carbon monoxide.’ But these clouds are in ‘armies’. They too desire to hurt. The speaker cries, ‘I am alive only by accident.’ She does not want to be saved.
In ‘Tulips’, the imagery of white returns with a hallucinatory quality. The speaker contemplates ‘how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.’ She says:
‘’I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted,
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.’’
The tulips offer an offensive brightness which startle the speaker. She does not want flowers. She desires an existence devoid of self that only the sterility of the hospital can offer. She wants only to be ‘empty’, effaced. Eileen Aird remarks that: ‘The world of Ariel is black and white, one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion.’ The redness, the life of the tulips should ‘be behind bars like a dangerous animal’ while she, empty, light as a cloud, can be ‘free’, ‘peaceful.’ It is Plath’s own dead body that is left, wounded, despised, when a whisper of, ‘from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life’, is heard, echoing, reverberating, at the end of the collection. Each word dropped like a stone in the ocean.
As self-confessed, ‘peanut crunching’ voyeurs of Sylvia Plath’s plight, we have cast her opus under the eye of the interpreter more times than one can count. The posthumous unearthing and publishing of her works reveals a woman who seemed reluctant to reveal herself. Self-flagellant, self-sadist, sufferer of torturous thoughts and assaults, she was a woman who, seemingly, did not feel in the world. Subject to continuous psychoanalysis for all who read her works, it’s doubtful that Plath’s mind and body will ever rest in peace.
 Eileen Aird, Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.