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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...

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 predicament!

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 mind’s outpourings!

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
I’d 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.

Doreen 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.

Her 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.

The only thing Doreen ever bawled me out about was bothering to get my assignments in by a deadline.

“What 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.

That 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 disposition –

I was supposed to be having the time of my life.

I 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.

Look 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.

Only 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 surrounding hullabaloo.

Now, 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 Sylvia’s choice!

I 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 water.

I 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.”

“Lemme 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.

I 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 –

Betsy 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.

Betsy 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.

“How 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.

“It 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 fact The 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 –

I 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.

I flipped through one story after another until finally I came to a story about a fig tree.

This 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.

I 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.

It 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.

As 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. 

Now 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,

“Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”

“No, what?” I said.

“A piece of dust.”

And 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.”

It was only in the middle of New York a whole year later that I finally thought of an answer to that remark.

I 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.

I 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.

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.

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 never disappointed.”

“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 be happy.”

“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 week.”

“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...

Images: Amazondotcom, theatlanticdotcom, indiatodaydotin


This post first appeared on My Academic Space, please read the originial post: here

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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...

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