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Reviews

The Bell Jar

Hester Jones

RThe-Bell-Jar-book-jacket.jpgSylvia Plath

Faber and Faber
240pp

Faber's 50th anniversary republication of Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel features a woman in profile, adjusting her make-up in a mirror. An early title of the book was The Girl in the Mirror, and this edition picks up on its emphasis on the limiting and superficial images of femininity projected by her contemporary culture. Some critics have suggested that this focus on manufactured and cosmetic femininity trivialises a serious and challenging female bildungsroman. Others recognize that the cover communicates the book's sense of conflict between material achievement and the raw pain that exists beneath the formation of such worldly identity.

Such conflict is expressed through the protagonist Esther's depressive illness, described with imaginative vitality. She is, perhaps temporarily, released from this illness by electric shock treatment, but Plath also relates its violent application to examples of brutality in the wider world. Indeed, Faber's 1966 cover featured a maze of dizzying concentric circles, making palpable the cultural and personal disorientation. Esther's depression is imagined as a 'bell jar' descending upon her, denying her the oxygen of self-belief and hope. It is understood as something both elusive and inexorable.

Our retrospective knowledge about the author's tragic demise means that we may feel obliged to take the book's experience 'seriously'; it comes from a place that, evidently, meant business. But at the same time, the book can mock such seriousness, take the world on and mimic its shabby earnestness and its superficial glamour. An ironic awareness, indeed, fuels and underpins the narrative voice. Such irony could be seen as an aspect of immaturity; its fear of depth, of being found out to be naive, had Plath lived, might have resolved itself into a more settled clarity. But, as the anniversary cover partly suggests, underlying this chilly superficiality is a pain that the book strives to express, and so to transform and heal.

The source of the pain, it hardly needs to be said, is much disputed. But the book is written in retrospect and, early on, makes apparently casual reference to 'the plastic starfish' on a glasses case that the speaker uses 'for the baby to play with'. We know that Plath herself wrote the book while mother to young children; it goes on to describe a visit with Esther's then boyfriend, Buddy, to a maternity ward, in which a woman is giving birth amid the horrific apparatus current at the time. Buddy remarks on the drug that 'would make her forget she'd had any pain', and the narrator reflects on how such pain would linger 'in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain', ['] waiting to open up and shut her in again', through further pregnancy.  This is the lens through which Plath presents her account of late adolescence, the bell jar of half-remembered, half forgotten, pain, a monstrous presence that lurks and waits to entrap. Such entrapment is not something we are comfortable considering as a culture, and perhaps it is not a surprise that the latest cover can only express it through the scarlet colouring.

Underlying this horror of pain and emptiness is a space which religion has previously occupied. Plath, a Unitarian by upbringing, moves in her work towards what Marjorie Perloff has called a 'violent rejection of Christianity', though Perloff qualifies the remark by suggesting that such rejection stemmed only from the poet's general self-hatred. Tim Kendall has pointed out that this movement was, at least, bifocal, looking with disapproval and dislike both to Christianity when used for 'social convenience' and also to the Christianity that fed off a human need for love, a hostility expressed in Plath's mordant image of the 'piranha/Religion'. At the same time, she expressed grudging admiration for Jewish suffering, and fierce contempt for Christians who elevated the sacrificial victim but showed themselves lacking in courage to 'face the lions'. Christianity seemed to lend itself, in her perception, to an exaggerated sympathy with the powerful, and an exaggerated demand on the victim. For all this, her writing seems also to indicate a leaning towards (even a yearning for) the spiritual, as conventionally understood, which such an analysis cannot entirely dislodge.

In this respect, Plath seems to share much with her contemporary Stevie Smith. Towards the end of her life, she wrote to Smith, flatteringly describing herself as 'a desperate Smith addict'. She claimed that she had just finished The Bell Jar and suspected a similarity with Smith's own earlier semi-autobiographical work A Novel on Yellow Paper. Deryn Rees-Jones has wondered why Plath was drawn to Smith so powerfully, and suggested that their shared bereavement of fathers was one reason; also, their interest in things German, and, perhaps in particular, their use of dramatic monologues and nonsense verse. Both, of course, suffered mental illness and periods of hospitalisation; both attempted suicide. But central in Smith's writing was an agonized conflict between a desire for continued belief in Christian story and revelation, and an intense hostility to its predatory consumption of life, its distraction from human virtue and experience and its use of imaginary images of God to waylay the individual from reality. Her poem 'God the Eater' begins, 'There is a god in whom I do not believe/ yet to this god my love stretches'. The poem flatly identifies the disjunction between distorted human constructions of God, and a human desire, irrational and yet powerful, existing despite this disjunction, to 'stretch', as if on the rack of love, towards G/god. Christianity constituted what in her 'Thoughts on the Christian doctrine of Hell' she called a 'mixture of sweetness and cruelty'. Here she urges, 'Oh, oh, have none of it, /Blow it away, have done with it'. Such doctrine for Smith is smoky and insubstantial but also violently powerful: it may be 'blown' as if like a twist of bonfire carried on a breath of wind; or it may be 'blown' out of the air, as if by a bomb. Smith articulated, perhaps in a manner that spoke to Plath, the paradoxical regret that as Christianity lost its violence and became 'tenderer', so it also lost its imaginative sway over the faithful, something she valued greatly. In her work Plath perhaps found a sturdy and robust expression of her own ambivalence towards Christian teaching and culture, and in particular, to its understandings of heaven and hell.

The novel and its reissuing remind us of the scope of this kind of writing for a creative re-working of pain that was not yet possible within the culture or the religious frameworks of the day. Since Plath's time, feminist theology has made it possible to think in terms of bodily immanence, of the divine as experienced through and not despite personal relationship and sensual or physical experience. For both Plath and Smith, however, an emphasis on transcendence, on 'heavenly' things, or on a fear of hell, made Christian revelation antipathetic. Nonetheless, even in The Bell Jar, the possibility of deliverance and of the transformation of pain into joy is held in view throughout, right up to the book's ambiguous ending.

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