THE BELL JAR (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

Sylvia Plath herself seemed to regard The Bell Jar as a sort of apprentice effort, essentially as practice for a possible later career as a novelist. And she also admitted that she wrote it when she did because, after the psychoanalysis craze of the 1950s, there was a burgeoning market for novels about mental illness and mental asylums. Yet the novel has gone on to be one of the most enduring works of its time and is still widely read and taught—often characterized as a sort of female version of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). At the same time, The Bell Jar would seem to be an intensely private novel, based unusually closely on Plath’s own personal experiences. Yet it also taps quite directly into the public political climate of America in the 1950s, pointing not just toward the broader situation of women in 1950s America but toward other aspects of the political climate of that decade, as well.

The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye

The Bell Jar features a teenage first-person narrator detailing her experiences in America in the early 1950s. Indeed, the book begins in the summer of 1953, when narrator Esther Greenwood is nineteen, which would place her birth year as 1934. The date of the action of The Catcher in the Rye is not specified, though it is clearly around 1950. And, since narrator Holden Caulfield is sixteen years old in that book, he might also have been born in 1934, so that he and Esther would have grown up during the very same years in America, including the latter years of the Great Depression, as well as all of World War I. On the other hand, Holden grows up in New York City and Esther grows up in New England, while he is clearly from a more economically privileged background than is Esther. At the same time, Esther has been able to win a scholarship to prestigious Smith College[1] and to win a much sought-after internship at the fictional women’s magazine Ladies’ Day[2]—even if she has not fully taken advantage of the opportunities she has had. Holden, of course, takes even less advantage of the opportunities he has been given to attend elite private prep schools (which he keeps flunking out of). Indeed, while things do not work out as well for her as they might have, through most of her life Esther has worked hard and tried to do well. As she tells us, “All my life I’d told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me” (24–25).

Esther is older than Holden and has also applied herself more as a student. It is not surprising, then, that her critique of the society around her tends to be a bit more sophisticated than is Holden’s. She also seems to have a more sophisticated knowledge of literature, though we see little actual analysis of literature in the novel. And her film criticism—which consists mainly of a sweeping rejection of Technicolor as looking unrealistic—is pretty much on the same level as Holden’s (32). In any case, Esther is still young and has still not completely seen through the problematic things she has been taught, even if she has a vague sense that the society around her is inauthentic and dishonest. Thus, she often simply declares things to be “stupid,” without further analysis, which is her version of Holden’s declaration of things to be “phony.”[3]

In the course of the events of The Bell Jar, meanwhile, Esther’s run of success comes to an end as she descends into mental illness and becomes fascinated with the possibility of committing suicide—as, of course, Plath herself would eventually do, soon after the publication of the novel. Esther’s personal problems are thus significantly more serious than the problems faced by Holden, though Holden himself sometimes dreams of death (and winds up in a mental asylum). Esther must also deal with the fact that American society in the 1950s had very specific, conformist expectations, and those are expectations were particularly oppressive to a smart, creative that woman like Esther, while they tended to offer more opportunities to a wealthy, white male such as Holden.

That Esther finds herself in a precarious position becomes clear after she is rebuffed by her supervisor at Ladies’ Day and immediately begins to suspect that her successful run might be nearing an end. Displaying a clear case of what has now come to be widely known as “impostor syndrome,” Esther tells is that “I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer. After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race” (22).

Esther again uses this race metaphor a bit later, suggesting her understanding of the competitive nature of American society. But, given her basic insecurities, it is clear that she expects her early competitive successes not to continue:

“The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.

I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone” (59).

This sense of entering a new era in her life is absolutely crucial to Esther’s mood in The Bell Jar: she is convinced that she entering a crucial phase in her life when she still has a number of possible futures, most of which are probably about to be foreclosed. In one of the texts most famous metaphors, she compares her sense of the shape of the narrative of her life to a fig tree, a kind of tree that is famous for its many branches. And she is beginning to have an adult understanding of the way in which choosing certain life courses necessarily means that other possibilities will be lost:

“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” (59).

To an extent, Esther here is simply going through the kind of experience that any young person might have as they first begin to make adult decisions. However, Esther seems increasingly to believe that, in the world in which she must live, all of her choices might turn out to be bad ones. As her difficulties worsen, Esther fantasizes about simply running away and starting a new life elsewhere—another characteristic that she shares with Holden Caulfield. In her case, she imagines moving to Chicago, adopting a new identity, and becoming the ideal American woman—complete with husband and children and with no expectations of doing complex intellectual work: “I thought if I ever did get to Chicago, I might change my name to Elly Higginbottom for good. Then nobody would know I had thrown up a scholarship at a big eastern women’s college and mucked up a month in New York and refused a perfectly solid medical student for a husband who would one day be a member of the AMA and earn pots of money. … I would be simple Elly Higginbottom, the orphan. People would love me for my sweet, quiet nature. They wouldn’t be after me to read books and write long papers on the twins in James Joyce[4]. And one day I might just marry a virile, but tender, garage mechanic and have a big cowy family” (102).

Of course, many of Esther’s concerns might come from her own troubled psychological condition. But it is also clear that many of her problems arise from the nature of the world in which she finds herself, a world that is, in many ways, very much at odds with her own desires and inclinations. For one thing, the political climate in 1950s America was extremely repressive and extremely intolerant of any opinions outside the norm. For another, the 1950s were a time of transformation within American capitalism, with consumerism gaining unprecedented power but also exerting unprecedented pressures. And, of course, whatever other transformations were going on, the fundamentally patriarchal nature of American society remained firmly in place, limiting the possibilities that were available to a woman like Esther.

The Bell Jar and the Repressive Political Climate of the 1950s

The Bell Jar is more overtly concerned with Esther’s interior experience than with the external political world of the 1950s, though references to specific aspects of the external world provide a reminder that Esther’s personal experiences do not occur in a vacuum and must surely be influenced by the world around her. The political climate of 1950s America, a climate of Cold War nuclear fear and anticommunist paranoia, enters The Bell Jar in its very first sentence. Esther, just beginning her internship at Ladies’ Day, begins the telling of her story as follows:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves” (2).

This opening passage accomplishes several things. For one thing, it identifies the action as taking place in 1953, the year in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19 at New York’s Sing Sing prison, in one of the highest profile and most controversial executions in American history—perhaps the most problematic politically-oriented execution in America since the electrocution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on August 23, 1927. For another thing, Esther’s thoughts about the physical details of the execution identify her as having a rather morbid imagination. These thoughts also identify her as rather self-centered, given that she shows relatively little sympathy for the Rosenbergs, suggesting that their plight has nothing to do with her.

The Rosenbergs are not mentioned again until almost halfway through the novel, in a scene that takes place on the day of their execution, when Esther’s fellow intern, Hilda, declares that she is glad the Rosenbergs are going to die (76). Then, when Esther suggests that it is “awful about the Rosenbergs,” Hilda responds that, yes, it is “awful such people should be alive” (76). Hilda is presented in the novel in a very unsympathetic light, and she is described in this scene essentially as a monster: shocked by Hilda’s attitude, Esther tells us that she “stared at the blind cave behind [Hilda’s] face until the two lips met and moved and the dybbuk[5] spoke out of its hiding place, ‘I’m so glad they’re going to die’” (77).

It seems safe to conclude that Esther does not share Hilda’s animosity toward the Rosenbergs, though it is also worthy of note that Esther repeats in her own mind Hilda’s statement, “I’m so glad they’re going to die.” This repetition could be taken as an expression of her shock that Hilda would make such a statement, but it is perhaps more likely that she is weighing the statement, taking it very differently than the way Hilda meant it. On the other hand, given the way Esther’s attitudes develop in the second half of the novel, in which she seems to regard death as a relief and as a desirable condition, it is possible that she might be also glad the Rosenbergs are going to die—but as a way of sympathizing with them and wishing them to be beyond their troubles in this world.

Esther does not seem to think about the execution (or anything else in the novel) in political terms, but foregrounding the execution of the Rosenbergs by placing a mention of them at the very beginning of the book does tend to call attention to their case as a key marker of the texture of life in America in the summer of 1953, a time when Cold War anxieties reached new heights with the detonation of the first Soviet H-bomb in a test on August 12, 1953, making it clear that America no longer had unquestioned superiority in the nuclear arms race. The Rosenbergs were charged with transmitting nuclear secrets to the Soviets, but there is no evidence that any information that might have been received from the Rosenbergs made any contribution whatsoever to the Soviet effort at bomb development. (The Soviet H-bomb program, like the American one, was greatly boosted by expertise supplied by former German Nazi scientists spirited away to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. after the end of World War II.)

The Rosenberg case drew so much attention both because it touched on the sensitive topic of nuclear anxiety and because it was so legally questionable. Not only was the evidence against the Rosenbergs extremely questionable, but it was not even clear that the crimes of which they were eventually convicted could even legally carry the death penalty. Some felt that the verdict and sentencing were driven more by Cold War paranoia than by legal propriety, while some even felt that antisemitism was an issue, given that the Rosenbergs were Jewish. In any case, the execution of the Rosenbergs, far from reassuring Americans that they were being protected, clearly increased Cold War anxieties. For some Americans, the case simply demonstrated that Soviet spies really were everywhere; for others, the case demonstrated that anyone at any time might suddenly be accused of being a Soviet spy, no matter how innocent they were.

The Rosenberg case has also exercised a significant impact on American literature. At least two major postmodern American novels— E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) and—are centrally informed by the Rosenberg case. That The Bell Jar starts with this mention of the case, then does not address it in detail might be taken as evidence of Esther’s self-absorption. On the other hand, it might also have to do with the fact that it was politically still very difficult to explore the case in 1963: any detailed treatment of the case might have led to the suppression of Plath’s novel. That Plath chose to risk controversy by mentioning the case at all must surely be significant and might very well suggest that the mention should be taken as an indication that we should regard the political climate of the 1950s as absolutely crucial to our understanding of Esther’s situation in the novel.

Robin Peel has noted that Plath showed an extensive concern with the Cold War context of which the Rosenbergs were such an important part, arguing that “spying, surveillance and punishment inform much of Plath’s writing after 1958” (205). Indeed, Peel makes a good case that the Rosenberg’s and the paranoia climate of the 1950s in general exercised a powerful influence on Plath’s writing. Thus, while her sense of the stifling demands placed upon women in 1950s America is certainly the central concern of Esther’s narrative, it is also the case that she describes this central concern in ways that point directly toward the broader context of the Cold War 1950s. Thinking of her potential future life as a wife and mother, Esther muses, “So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state” (65-66)

The Bell Jar and 1950s Consumerism

One of the key characteristics of American life in the 1950s was the explosive growth of consumerism during the decade. Americans had an unprecedented amount of money during the decade and there was an unprecedented growth in the number of consumer items available to spend it on. Moreover, there was also a corresponding expansion in strategies to encourage the consumption of these new goods, leading to an explosive growth in the discourse of advertising during the decade. It is clear that Esther, despite her reading of complex authors such as James Joyce, often instinctively thinks in terms that are conditioned not by literature, but by advertising[6]. Thus, when she and Doreen go out on the town and meet a flirtatious man, Esther tells us that the man “had a big, wide, white toothpaste-ad smile” (7). Granted, Esther is clearly being condescending here, suggesting that there is something inauthentic about the man’s smile, while also suggesting that she is sophisticated enough to see through it. Nevertheless, the point stands: advertisements are a key source of Esther’s stock of figurative capital.

Women’s magazines like the one where Esther serves as an intern (or where Plath served as an intern) were crucial to the growth of American consumerism in the 1950s, serving as a key venue both for literal advertising and for the subtle molding of American women into ideal consumers (part, of course, of their job as ideal wives). Caroline Smith examines the articles and advertisements appearing in Mademoiselle magazine in the 1950s, noting that there was some variety in the magazine’s own recommendations, including the fact that the articles sometimes seemed at odds with the advertisements. On the other hand, the range of choices offered within the pages of the magazine might have been a bit misleading: “Though attempting to provide readers with choices, Mademoiselle simultaneously limits those choices and, at times, seems to discourage women’s navigation beyond the private sphere. In part, the mixed messages of these magazines often arise from the construction of the magazine itself. While magazines consist of articles developed by the magazines’ editorial staffs, they also rely heavily on advertisements created by advertising agencies that are not directly affiliated with the magazine itself” (7).

Ultimately, then, smart, creative women like Esther, who might have naturally tended to deviate from the norm, were encouraged to conform by such magazines. As Smith also notes, “Esther seems to discover on her path to recovery that the only way to achieve acceptability by society is to comply with the more traditional, domestic models offered by Mademoiselle magazine” (19). At the same time, complying with these models was not as simple a matter as it might appear to me, partly because these idealized models—and the models of domesticity put forth in 1950s television programs such as Leave It to Beaver—were unrealistic and out of step with the way any actual women lived their lives. Thus, pressure to conform notwithstanding, there were considerable mixed messages about what conformity would entail, making life confusing for everyone, but especially so for someone like Esther, who already has such mixed feelings about conforming to the official norm[7].

Perhaps the most overt commentary on consumerism in The Bell Jar occurs in the sequence in which Esther and her fellow interns attend a luncheon served up by the food testing kitchens at Ladies’ Day. For one thing, this early episode gives us a key insight into Esther’s personality when we see her bingeing on as much of the caviar from the luncheon as she can possibly get, greedily gulping down the caviar but also feeling extremely guilty for doing so, even though the food at the luncheon is free. This binge is partly a response to the anxieties Esther is feeling about her work at Ladies’ Day. As Renée Dowbnia notes, “the idea that food can cure emotional distress is a common marketing strategy of many food advertisements of the 1950s and one that continues today” (574). But there is also an issue of class at stake here, and this episode indicates the relatively modest status in which Esther grew up (making expensive items such as caviar seem more special), an issue that is also relevant to her admission in this same segment that she had to learn the proper utensils to use at fancy luncheons once she got to her internship in New York.

Esther also demonstrates her class background when she describes the various gifts that are showered on the interns at Ladies’ Day. Esther is smart enough to realize that these gifts are basically just a form of advertising for the companies distributing them, but she has been conditioned by the society in which she lives to value such trinkets, and she is not wealthy enough to simply spurn them. In fact, she values them, despite her realization of what they represent. She is still using some of them years later, when (she hints in this passage) she has seemingly recovered from her psychological problems and is now a mother: “I realized we kept piling up these presents because it was as good as free advertising for the firms involved, but I couldn’t be cynical. I got such a kick out of all those free gifts showering on to us. For a long time afterward I hid them away, but later, when I was all right again, I brought them out, and I still have them around the house. I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with” (4)[8]. One can detect a certain feeling of guilt in Esther’s admission that she still has these gifts. Meanwhile, both this guilt and her guilt over consuming the caviar at the luncheon also reflect her impostor syndrome by suggesting that she does not feel worthy of all this fancy food. The logic of consumerism conditions Esther to grab and consume everything she can get, but her personal struggles tell her both that she shouldn’t desire such things and that she doesn’t deserve them.

Esther, of course, seems to have many opportunities open to her, opportunities that might potentially lead her to rise in class. However, as Linda Wagner-Martin, in a book-length study of The Bell Jar,notes, it is important, when reading this novel to understand the “comparatively rigid social stratification in place during the increasingly prosperous 1940s and 1950s” (55). Rhetoric of opportunity and upward mobility notwithstanding, poor children were likely to become poor adults, regardless of their talent. Esther might have won a scholarship to a prestigious college and an internship at a prestigious magazine, but she feels very much like an outsider in both places, just as she would feel like an outsider at the country club where her grandfather was a lowly employee.

Meanwhile, the food at that Ladies’ Day luncheon gives the participants a serious case of food poisoning, and Esther (among others) becomes seriously ill. Her immediate response is to assume that she is being punished for eating all that caviar, though it turns out that the culprit was crabmeat coming straight from a photo session under hot lights. Dowbnia reads this episode within the context of the participation of women’s magazines in the consumerist boom of the 1950s. For one thing, Dowbnia notes that the photo shoot motif points toward the way 1950s marketing put an emphasis on the appearance of food, rather than the taste or quality. For another, the food poisoning in this episode suggests the toxic nature of consumerism. Thus, Dowbnia notes that “Esther’s description of this poisonous food, full of language that denotes both excess and eroticism, symbolizes the cyclical binge–purge pattern of consumer capitalism. By seductively emphasizing appearance, the advertisement compels the consumer to buy a product that not only fails to fulfill its advertised promises but also proves harmful to the buyer psychologically if not physically” (576).

Patriarchy and The Bell Jar

In the course of The Bell Jar, we see (or at least hear about) Esther’s interactions with a number of different American institutions, including college, the workplace, her family, and a mental asylum. Esther’s stay in the asylum, including being subjected to shock treatments to which she submits with surprising passivity, recalls the way in which Holden Caulfield ends The Catcher in the Rye in such an institution. That such asylums are important in both of these novels suggests their prominence in 1950s America. From this point of view, it should also be noted that Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, perhaps the best-known American novel about a mental institution, was published just a year before The Bell Jar[9].  

In the case of The Bell Jar, what comes through very clearly is that, especially for a woman like Esther, all of the institutions she encounters operate in very much the same, oppressive way. Read alongside The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar thus makes us wonder whether the prep schools and the family in which Holden Caulfield finds himself might also operate along the same lines as the mental asylum where he ends up. The parallels among these institutionsmight tell us a great deal about the conformist nature of 1950s America. On the other hand, these parallels also strongly recall the work of the important French social theorist Michel Foucault, who saw such parallels as a crucial structural characteristic of Western societies in general in the modern era. carceral institutions. In Discipline and Punish (1979), his important study of the modern prison, Foucault concludes that the prison is in many ways the quintessential modern institution and that the workings of most institutions in modern Western societies were similar to those of the prison. Foucault thus concludes that it should come as no surprise that modern “prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons” (228).

Nicholas Donofrio sees The Bell Jar in much this way, even though he (surprisingly, given Foucault’s prominence) does not mention Foucault. In particular, he focuses on the ways in which various forces in the novel prepare Esther for a professional career that stays within conventional expectations. Donofrio notes the fact that the word “intern” first appeared in English as a verb meaning “to confine” or “to detain,” noting the infamous case of the Japanese Americans who were placed in “internment camps” during World War II. He then notes Esther’s stint as an intern at Ladies’ Day and points out that, in fact, Esther

“is thrice interned: first, in the surprisingly illiberal offices of a New York fashion magazine; second, in the stifling precincts of her mother’s suburban home; and third, in a psychiatric hospital that is subtly but elaborately compared to a college, the institution most responsible for helping internships spread beyond the disciplinary confines of the medical profession. Though only the first of these narrative segments involves anything that looks conventionally like white-collar work, all three function together to provide Esther with the proper references and credentials, the hard-earned experience she needs to launch her uncertain literary career” (217).

Of course, Esther’s sense of being confined with stifling expectations has largely to do with gender, and the carceral institution that she perhaps dreads most is marriage. Her vision of how marriage is likely to work out for women is made quite clear: “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” (65). Then again, Plath’s treatment of marriage in The Bell Jar can be seen as an aspect of Esther’s broader struggles against patriarchy in general.

All of Esther’s interactions with men can be summed up as such a struggle, and much of Plath’s writing addresses this topic, perhaps most overtly in the poem “Daddy,” written in 1960s, not that long before she completed The Bell Jar. Among other things, this poem well illustrates the ability of Plath’s poem to reflect specific experiences in her own life, while at the same time addressing much broader issues and problems. In this poem in particular, Plath airs some of her grievances against her own father, the German-born biology professor Otto Plath (1885–1940), while at the same time addressing some quite general problems in patriarchal societies. In the poem, the speaker (who clearly has much in common with Plath herself) addresses her sense, growing up, of having been dominated by a distant German father, a towering figure with whom she was entirely unable to communicate—and who did not, for his own part, seem to welcome communication. Otto Plath died when Sylvia was only eight years old, and the father in the poem also dies early (when the speaker is ten) yet remains an intimidating presence in the speaker’s life. She characterizes her father through repeated references to Nazi Germany, suggesting that her father made her feel like a Jew consigned during World War II to the concentration camps at Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen. References to the Luftwaffe (the Nazi German air force), the Aryan race (the Nazi German notion of their own status as a “master race”), and Panzers (the word “Panzer” means “armor” in German and is associated with the German tanks that wrought such havoc in World War II) evoke Nazi Germany. References to swastikas and to “Meinkampf” (Mein Kampf is the title of Adolf Hitler’s ranting 1925 autobiography and manifesto) make the connection between the father and fascism even more overt.

On the other hand, the “Meinkampf” reference appears to be to another man, the speaker’s husband, suggesting that she had married a man much like her father in an attempt somehow to come to grips with his legacy. Having recognized that as a mistake, she has now “killed” both the father and the husband, those twin images of patriarchal authority. Ultimately, the speaker suggests that she has had to reject the patriarchal authoritarianism that she associates with her father in order to move forward in her life. At the same time, the conclusion of the poem also indicates the obstacles that all women have to overcome to succeed in a patriarchal society. Marking liberation from the dominating legacy of her father (and husband), the speaker turns in the final stanzas to especially colorful (even slightly humorous) imagery that envisions the demise of the father, a vampire who has now had a stake driven through his heart—but also a sort of Frankenstein figure taken down by angry villagers.

Formally, “Daddy” consists of sixteen five-line stanzas, though the lengths of the lines are irregular. The poem is filled with end words that rhyme with “you” (or the German “du”), indicating the dominance of the addressee (her father) in the speaker’s thoughts, though the final use of this rhyme in “I’m through” suggests the breaking of that dominance (unless, of course, it is taken to suggest the ultimate surrender, which is a possible reading). Note, though, that these rhyme words typically occur in the second and fifth lines of stanzas, but that this is not always the case. In addition, there are several slant rhymes, suggesting a deviation from poetic regularity that might have greatly annoyed her authoritarian father. All in all, the formal structure of the poem suggests a struggle against order and authority that has not been entirely successful.

Daddy

You do not do, you do not do   

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot   

For thirty years, poor and white,   

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.   

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,   

Ghastly statue with one gray toe   

Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic   

Where it pours bean green over blue   

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.   

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town   

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.   

My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.   

So I never could tell where you   

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.   

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.   

And the language obscene

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.   

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna   

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck   

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.   

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.   

Every woman adores a Fascist,   

The boot in the face, the brute   

Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,   

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot   

But no less a devil for that, no not   

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.   

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,   

And they stuck me together with glue.   

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.   

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,   

The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you   

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.   

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Though clearly influenced by Plath’s experience with her own father, this poem also treats “Daddy” as a sort of allegorical representative of patriarchy in general, interchangeable with husbands and other figures of patriarchy. As with most aspects of her experience, Esther Greenwood also has some similar experiences, her father having died when she was nine. Esther is never able fully to articulate the impact of this experience on her, but The Bell Jar does include one extremely telling episode in which Esther pays a visit to her father’s grave, which she had never before visited—another thing that adds to her extensive feelings of guilt. After a passage in which she imagines all of the things her father might have taught her had he lived, she describes going to look for her father’s grave. After noting that the older part of the cemetery where he is buried seems “all right,” she realizes that he is buried in the “modern section: “The stones in the modern part were crude and cheap, and here and there a grave was rimmed with marble, like an oblong bathtub full of dirt, and rusty metal containers stuck up about where the person’s navel would be, full of plastic flowers” (128).

We’ve all heard that there is no shame in being poor, but consumerist society constantly bombards us with messages that say otherwise. Here, Esther once again begins to experience the class-based shame that has dogged her throughout her life, the feeling of inferiority that comes from being poor in an American society that claims to offer opportunities for wealth to anyone who deserves it. To emphasize the emotional entanglement between Esther’s feelings of economic inferiority and her feelings about her father, Plath includes a potential cliché by having it begin to rain as Esther seeks her father’s grave, but then the cliché pays off when Esther reveals that she has no umbrella to protect her from the rain because she simply can’t afford one, again emphasizing her poverty. Then, she locates her father’s tombstone, a modest, low-budget affair that adds to her feelings of class-based shame: “It was crowded right up by another gravestone, head to head, the way people are crowded in a charity ward when there isn’t enough space. The stone was of a mottled pink marble, like canned salmon, and all there was on it was my father’s name and, under it, two dates, separated by a little dash” (128–29). Then, finally, to complete the effect, Esther leaves flowers at the grave that she had picked from a bush at the entrance to the graveyard, not having been able to afford to buy any. Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that Esther proceeds directly from this graveyard visit to the suicide attempt that leads to her confinement in a mental asylum.

By the end of the novel, Esther seems possibly on her way to recovery, and the fact that the novel is narrated from a later perspective that seems to suggest Esther’s success in moving beyond her mental health struggles supports this conclusion. Esther is not Plath, however, much Plath might have drawn on her own experiences in creating the characters. Nevertheless,  our knowledge of Plath’s own suicide soon after the publication of the novel inevitably colors our reading and makes it difficult to see the ending of the novel as optimistic. Patriarchy, consumerism, and repressive political climate all put tremendous pressures on Americans in the 1950s, and many of them didn’t survive.

Works Cited

Donofrio, Nicholas. “Esther Greenwood’s Internship: White-Collar Work and Literary Careerism in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.”

Dowbnia, Renée. “Consuming Appetites: Food, Sex, and Freedom in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” Women’s Studies, vol. 43. 2014, pp. 567–588.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage-Random House, 1979.

Gourley, James. “‘The same anew”: James Joyce’s Modernism and its Influence on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” College Literature, vol. 45, No. 4, Fall 2018, pp. 695–723

Peel, Robin. “The Bell Jar, the Rosenbergs and the Problem of the Enemy Within.” Sylvia Plath in Context. Edited by Tracy Brain, Cambridge University Press; 2019, pp. 203–12. 

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.

Skolnick, Arlene S. Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty. Basic Books, 1991.

Smith, Caroline J. “‘The Feeding of Young Women’: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Mademoiselle Magazine, and the Domestic Ideal.” College Literature, vol. 37, no. 4, Fall 2010, pp. 1–22.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Twayne, 1992.

Notes

[1] The college Esther attends is not actually named in the novel, though it is clearly based on Smith, which Plath attended. Plath, though, was somewhat more successful as a student, even though Esther’s various personal problems are clearly based on Plath’s. Indeed, Plath graduated from Smith with highest honors (in 1955) and later taught at the school.

[2] Plath herself spent a month in New York in the summer of 1953 as an intern at Mademoiselle, a prominent women’s magazine.

[3] There are, however, problematic aspects of 1950s American society that Esther never seems to challenge at all. For example, she herself shows a thoroughgoing tendency to categorize people in standard racialist terms, as when she notes that she is losing her tan and says, “I looked yellow as a Chinaman” (7). A little later, she suggests that her friend Doreen looked “dusky as a bleached-blonde Negress in her white dress” (10).

[4] Plath, incidentally, wrote her senior thesis at Smith college on doubles in the work of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski.

[5] In Jewish mythology, a dybbuk is an evil spirit, so this description would seem to indicate a rejection of Hilda’s attitude. Indeed, that Esther would cite Jewish mythology here might suggest a subtle sympathy for the Rosenbergs.

[6] Plath, of course, is older than Esther when writing the novel and might be more sophisticated in this sense, See Gourley for an analysis of the importance of Joyce to The Bell Jar, which he finds to be extensive, seeing the book as partly a response to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

[7] For more on the incompatibility between reality and the ideal images of domesticity prevalent in the 1950s, see Skolnick.

[8] This passage is one of the few indications that Esther is narrating the story from a point in the future, probably closer to the 1963 publication date of the novel.

[9] Of course, this novel is well-known partly because of the success of its 1975 film adaptation, which won all of the “Big Five” Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), becoming only the second film ever to do so.