On a whirlwind tour through some of the impactful,
inspiring and immortal autobiographical reads from off Benji and Proust, to Butler and Teddy, to Kate and Stein, to Em Zee and Lammy, let’s
now have a stopover at Sylvia
Plath aka Esther Greenwood!
Of Em Zee,
who was part of the Serapion Fraternity, we could get a glimpse, through his autobiographical novella, into his lived
experience, on the remarkable ways in which he battled his depression,
melancholy and sadness and came out triumphant.
|Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes|
Like Em Zee, Esther Greenwood also, [or Sylvia Plath as she’s quite popular
amongst the literati,] in her autobiographical fiction titled, The
Bell Jar battles depression, much of which she candidly details with
such intense descriptors in the course of this long fictional read. However,
Esther/Sylvia is not able to get enough of support from her family members, nor
from her friends and classmates, nor from her society, nor from her professors,
nor from her doctors, all of which proves ample foregrounding to her precarious
Well, quite interestingly, from a bird’s eye
view of the entire gamut of American Literature, it could be gauged, with a
certain amount of conviction that, thus far, there had been a huge dearth or a
lacuna of female protagonists in works of art, created by women, who spoke
their minds from off their own perspectives!
In this backdrop, Sylvia Plath proves a great
hit, an instant hit amongst the sorority of the American literati and from
across the globe, for her gut feelings, her frankness, her forthrightness and
her lack of restraint in addressing the issues that bothered her mind in all
its poignant intensity.
In short, Bell Jar, published under the
pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, proved that valuable receptacle for her
But… Before reading her autobiographical work
of fiction, it is pertinent on our part, to bear in mind a kutty little backdrop to the American mindscape of the early 50’s
when Sylvia Plath lived, and wrote!
Esther’s America, ooopy oops! - Sylvia’s America
- in the 1950s was an America which had a huge list of conformities up its
sleeve to be strictly adhered to! Women had to succumb with graceful ‘elegance’
to the ‘socially conditioned realities,’ to the ‘normatives,’ to the ‘basic
givens’, to the ‘patriarchal givens’ of society, where gender roles were very
rigid, and crossing this highly ‘sacred’ lakshman
rekha meant inviting trouble, and hence was anathema to women in general!
American women of the 1950s were categorized
into two groups as such! One group was the goody-goody girls who were
torch-bearers to this rigid social fabric, married promptly, begat children by
the number, kept houses remarkably well, did the dishes, made the beds, and
were dutiful as housewives, and were matronly in their demeanour! The other
group of women were the ones who were typecast as the bad-o-bad girls, who did
not succumb to the filial roles expected of women in society. Their ideal of
success was never the ideals of the family, housekeeping or the related drudges
and burdens of life! In contrast, the
so-called ‘bad girls’ were the ones who were so raring to go, so wanting to
enjoy their lives, to live their own sweet moments, according to their own
dictates, and thereby come out of the confines of a doll’s existence! At the
same time, there was, in American society, a third group as well! A group of
women who were out there on the liminal space, who were never included under
the ambit of women at all! They were the spinsters, or the maids, or the
social-conscious women who, although highly intelligent and highly skilled,
were termed the unfortunate, les
miserables, or the doomed! And well, they weren’t part of the duality-mode,
as they did not intend to seek the attention of men! They rather played the
game for game’s sake!
And Sylvia has one reppy-sampy each for the ‘good girl,’ ‘bad girl’ and the liminal
girl in this, her autobiographical read, The Bell Jar! An ensample to the ‘good
girl’ type, is the character of Doreen! So now, let’s have a glimpse into the
daily grind of Doreen from what Sylvia would tell us all –
|Sylvia, as a student of Smith College, April 1954|
never known a girl like Doreen before. Doreen came from a society girls’
college down South and had bright white hair standing out in a cotton candy
fluff round her head and blue eyes like transparent agate marbles, hard and
polished and just about indestructible, and a mouth set in a sort of perpetual
sneer. I don’t mean a nasty sneer, but an amused, mysterious sneer, as if all
the people around her were pretty silly and she could tell some good jokes on
them if she wanted to.
singled me out right away. She made me feel I was that much sharper than the
others, and she really was wonderfully funny. She used to sit next to me at the
conference table, and when the visiting celebrities were talking she’d whisper
witty sarcastic remarks to me under her breath.
college was so fashion conscious, she said, that all the girls had pocketbook
covers made out of the same material as their dresses, so each time they
changed their clothes they had a matching pocketbook. This kind of detail
impressed me. It suggested a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that
attracted me like a magnet.
only thing Doreen ever bawled me out about was bothering to get my assignments
in by a deadline.
are you sweating over that for?” Doreen lounged on my bed in a peach silk
dressing gown, filing her long, nicotine-yellow nails with an emery board,
while I typed up the draft of an interview with a best-selling novelist.
was another thing - the rest of us had starched cotton summer nighties and
quilted housecoats, or maybe terrycloth robes that doubled as beachcoats, but
Doreen wore these full-length nylon and lace jobs you could half see through,
and dressing gowns the color of skin, that stuck to her by some kind of
electricity. She had an interesting, slightly sweaty smell that reminded me of
those scallopy leaves of sweet fern you break off and crush between your
fingers for the musk of them.
And what does Esther, ooopy oops, Sylvia have to
say about herself? Let’s follow her words rightaway, to know more about her
was supposed to be having the time of my life.
was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me
all over America who wanted nothing more than to be tripping about in those
same size-seven patent leather shoes I’d bought in Bloomingdale’s one lunch
hour with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocketbook to match.
And when my picture came out in the magazine the twelve of us were working on -
drinking martinis in a skimpy, imitation silver-lame bodice stuck on to a big,
fat cloud of white tulle, on some Starlight Roof, in the company of several
anonymous young men with all-American bone structures hired or loaned for the
occasion - everybody would think I must be having a real whirl.
what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some
out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine,
and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize
there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.
I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to
work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb
trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls
were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the
way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the
for an example of the ‘guggirl’ type that Sylvia gives us all in the character
of Betsy! So here we go to see the contrast between Doreen and Betsy, and
never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath. I lay in that tub on the
seventeenth floor of this hotel for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push
of New York, for near onto an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again. I
don’t believe in baptism or the waters of Jordan or anything like that, but I
guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy
said to myself: “Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd 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. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled
on my skin on the way back is turning into something pure.”
lie down, lemme lie down,” Doreen was muttering. “Lemme lie down, lemme lie
down.” I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped
her onto my bed I would never get rid of her again.
started to lower Doreen gently onto the green hall carpet, but she gave a low
moan and pitched forward out of my arms. A jet of brown vomit flew from her
mouth and spread in a large puddle at my feet. Suddenly Doreen grew even
heavier. Her head drooped forward into the puddle, the wisps of her blonde hair
dabbling in it like tree roots in a bog, and I realized she was asleep. I drew
back. I felt half-asleep myself. I made a decision about Doreen that night. I
decided I would watch her and listen to what she said, but deep down I would
have nothing at all to do with her. Deep down, I would be loyal to Betsy and
her innocent friends. It was Betsy I resembled at heart.
And of Betsy she has such immense flattering
words of praise all through her read! Sample this –
started to tell about the male and female corn in Kansas. She got so excited
about that damn corn even the producer had tears in his eyes, only he couldn’t
use any of it, unfortunately, he said.
was always asking me to do things with her and the other girls as if she were
trying to save me in some way. Betsy seemed sweet and friendly, she didn’t even
seem to like caviar, so I grew more and more confident.
was the fur show?” I asked Betsy, when I was no longer worried about
competition over my caviar. I scraped the last few salty black eggs from the
dish with my soup spoon and licked it clean.
was wonderful,” Betsy smiled. “They showed us how to make an all-purpose
neckerchief out of mink tails and a gold chain, the sort of chain you can get
an exact copy of at Woolworth’s for a dollar ninety-eight, and Hilda nipped
down to the wholesale fur warehouses right afterward and bought a bunch of mink
tails at a big discount and dropped in at Woolworth’s and then stitched the
whole thing together coming up on the bus.”
That’s for a little exemplification of the
guggirl, baggirl types from The Bell Jar’s frame of reference!
As such, these above outpourings of Sylvia’s
mind, of her own disposition, about Doreen, about Betsy amongst a host of
others in her close circle, attain a refined sensibility of their own, thanks
much to the beautiful symbolism that speaks volumes to her confessive prowess
and add the impact-factor to this hugely successful autobiographical read! In
Bell Jar abounds with symbols! In fact, the ‘Bell Jar’ in itself being
a highly profound symbol of sorts!
One more such powerful symbol is the symbol of
the Fig Tree in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar! Yesss! Amongst a host
of impactful symbols that foreground the persona’s psyche to added credibility,
the symbolism of the fig tree attains much-o-much prominence, as she has used
it towards the beginning, the middle and at the fag end of the novel too!
Here speaks Sylvia Plath’s persona, Esther
Greenwood from the Bell Jar, for us all –
reached for the book the people from Ladies’ Day had sent. When I opened it a
card fell out. The front of the card showed a poodle in a flowered bedjacket
sitting in a poodle basket with a sad face, and the inside of the card showed
the poodle lying down in the basket with a smile, sound asleep under an
embroidered sampler that said, “You’ll get well best with lots and lots of
rest.” At the bottom of the card somebody had written, “Get well quick! from
all of your good friends at Ladies’ Day,” in lavender ink.
flipped through one story after another until finally I came to a story about a
fig grew on a green lawn between the house of a Jewish man and a convent, and
the Jewish man and a beautiful dark nun kept meeting at the tree to pick the
ripe figs, until one day they saw an egg hatching in a bird’s nest on a branch
of the tree, and as they watched the little bird peck its way out of the egg,
they touched the backs of their hands together, and then the nun didn’t come
out to pick figs with the Jewish man any more but a mean-faced Catholic kitchen
maid came to pick them instead and counted up the figs the man picked after
they were both through to be sure he hadn’t picked any more than she had, and
the man was furious.
thought it was a lovely story, especially the part about the fig tree in winter
under the snow and then the fig tree in spring with all the green fruit. I felt
sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black
lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that
beautiful big green fig tree.
seemed to me Buddy Willard and I were like that Jewish man and that nun,
although of course we weren’t Jewish or Catholic but Unitarian. We had met
together under our own imaginary fig tree, and what we had seen wasn’t a bird
coming out of an egg but a baby coming out of a woman, and then something awful
happened and we went our separate ways.
I lay there in my white hotel bed feeling lonely and weak, I thought I was up
in that sanatorium in the Adirondacks, and I felt like a heel of the worst
sort. In his letters Buddy kept telling me how he was reading poems by a poet
who was also a doctor and how he’d found out about some famous dead Russian
short-story writer who had been a doctor too, so maybe doctors and writers
could get along fine after all.
this was a very different tune from what Buddy Willard had been singing all the
two years we were getting to know each other. I remember the day he smiled at
me and said,
you know what a poem is, Esther?”
what?” I said.
piece of dust.”
he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond
hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth - he had very long, strong teeth -
and said, “I guess so.”
was only in the middle of New York a whole year later that I finally thought of
an answer to that remark.
spent a lot of time having imaginary conversations with Buddy Willard. He was a
couple of years older than I was and very scientific, so he could always prove
things. When I was with him I had to work to keep my head above water.
saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. 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, and another fig
was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South
America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of
other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an
Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs
I couldn’t quite make out.
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.
Could there be a better way of baring one’s mind
through such rich evocative symbols! And that’s one reason why, we join
together in unison, even as we shout out the hip the hip and the hurray to
Esther Greenwood ooopy oops! Sylvia Plath!
Some memorable lines, albeit sad in their
demeanour, from The Bell Jar for y’all
“If you expect nothing from somebody you are
“The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence
of silence. It was my own silence.”
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of
scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, "This is what it is to
“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all
along, I simply hadn't thought about it.”
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and
stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
“because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or
at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass
bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
“I didn't know why I was going to cry, but I
knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would
fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of the throat and I'd cry for a
“I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had
nothing to look forward to.”
“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was
comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.”
“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It
didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a
sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.”
“Ever since I was small I loved feeling somebody
comb my hair. It made me go all sleepy and peaceful.”
“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 as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”
to be continued...
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