Mental Illness in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar Plath Bell Jar Essays
Mental Illness in The Bell Jar Mental illness and madness is a theme often explored in literature and the range of texts exploring these is tremendously varied. Various factors can threaten a character’s sanity, ranging from traumatic events which trigger a decline to pressure from more vast, impersonal sources. Generally speaking, writers have tried to show that most threats to sanity comprise a combination of long-term and short-term factors – the burning of the library in Mervyn Peake’s novel ‘Titus Groan’ precipitated Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness, but a longer term problem can be discerned in the weight of tradition which caused him to worry ‘that with him the line of Groan should perish’. Such interplay between the acute and the chronic is, it would seem, a matter of agreement between authors who explored this issue. The manner in which characters respond to these threats is not. In some works the threatened character succeeds in becoming empowered – they find a way to maintain themselves and emerge from the ordeal undefeated, if not unbowed. Esther Greenwood as portrayed in Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’ is one such character, although the question always remains whether such a victory is a permanent solution. In many other works the only option for the characters is escape. This may be an escape from reality as described in Roald Dahl’s short story ‘Georgy Porgy’. It may be an escape from self-awareness as shown in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. The ultimate escape is self-destruction – Sepulchrave’s death in ‘Titus Groan’ and Sylvia Plath’s real-life suicide in 1963 (barely three weeks after ‘The Bell Jar’ was published) can both be seen as a last recourse when the pressures which threatened their sanity proved too all-pervasive and powerful to overcome. Esther Greenwood’s initial response is to withdraw – she tries to protect herself by severing her emotional connection both to the outside world and also, increasingly, herself. In various places Plath is describing scenes which would normally be repulsive and gruesome – the language used, however, is clinical and cold and gives the reader the impression that the narrator is failing to respond emotionally to what she is observing. In describing medical specimens of preserved foetuses Greenwood says that “The baby in the first bottle had a large white head bent over a tiny curled-up body the size of a frog.” There is no comment made on this or similar descriptions that follow until the next paragraph when she confides that “I was quite proud of the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things”. This response is almost childish and flippant in tone and does not rest easy with the horrible sites that she was seeing (and Plath implicitly admits this with the worlds “gruesome things”) – nevertheless the tone of the comment emphasises the block that she is placing between herself and disturbing scenes. The very structure of the writing emphasises this – the position of the comment at the start of the next paragraph creates a break in the flow of the writing and emphasises Plath’s disjointed emotional state. Other episodes reiterate this. When Greenwood first sees Buddy Willard naked we would expect her to have either a passionate response or at least an emotional one given that they were in a serious relationship. Her comment is “The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very impressed” – a reaction which could be due to other causes but in the context does suggest a lack of connection to the world and ‘normal’ responses. As the first part of the novel progresses we find that her engagement with the outside world is becoming more and more tenuous – “It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in these last few days”. Simultaneously, though, the cutting off of her emotional side appears to be having internal repercussions. At the very start of the novel Greenwood says that she felt “very still and very empty, the way that the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” This image conveys volumes about the narrator’s mental state – the eye of a tornado is both “still” and “empty” and also completely isolated from the world outside by the destruction and violence of the storm surrounding it – “the surrounding hullabaloo”. The reader is certain that Plath identifies herself with the eye but the nature of the storm is uncertain. It could be that the storm represents the destructive possibilities of the world around her, but it seems more likely given events later in the book that the storm represents her emotional response to the world. In this case Greenwood recognises that if she is to respond fully to the pressures around her then her psyche will be subjected to the full force of that “hullabaloo” – and so her response is to withdraw into the safety of the eye. In doing so, however, she loses her involvement with the world (in a similar way to how someone standing in the eye of a tornado could not reach out to the world outside the tornado without passing through the zone of destruction) and starts to lose her involvement with herself. Plath demonstrates throughout the first half of the novel that Greenwood is increasingly withdrawing from herself, with her failure to identify with her reflection in a mirror (“The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian” – she uses no words to suggest that “the face in the mirror” is herself, and it is only from context that the reader knows this at all) being symbolic of this. The first half of the Bell Jar, then, demonstrates that Esther Greenwood’s initial responses to the pressures threatening her sanity are firstly to lose her emotional link to the world, and secondly to lose this link within herself. Such a response only lead to further problems which the author explores in the rest of the novel, and it is a point worth noting that in many cases the defences that can be useful at first in response to a threat can end up as part of the problem itself.