BETWEEN THE LINES: How not to read Sylvia Plath

As Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, enters its 50th year, there is a case to be made for a fresh reading of it.
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First Published: Mon, Jan 21 2013. 12 27 PM IST
A still from the film Sylvia.
A still from the film Sylvia.
Updated: Mon, Jan 21 2013. 12 43 PM IST
“There ought, I thought, to be a ritual of being born twice—patched, retreaded and approved for the road,” muses Esther Greenwood, the narrator of The Bell Jar(1963),at the end of Sylvia Plath’s only novel, as she is about to step inside a room where a group of doctors are waiting to pronounce whether she is fit to be released from the asylum to which she had been committed for a few weeks.We never get to know if Esther manages to earn her release, but Bell Jar, to push the analogy, certainly hasn’t earned its reprieve.Scores of feminist critics, historians, biographers and common readers continue to see it as a portrait of its author’s troubled youth.In a sense, it is still awaiting a second birth—and the time for that has been long overdue.
Half a century on, Plath’s novel, published the year she gassed herself to death at the age of thirty, has been reduced in the popular imagination to a tale of suffering and martyrdom. Bell Jar apart, the history of reading Plath’s work, in general, has been plagued by controversy all along, much as her own life was mired in turmoil. Jacqueline Rose, best known as a psychoanalytic critic and author of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), was embroiled in a feud with the late Ted Hughes (Plath’s poet-husband) and Olwyn Hughes (Ted’s sister) over the ‘proper’ way of writing a biography of Plath. The Hughes siblings accused Rose of being immoral, especially in the way she wrote about the Plath-Hughes marriage,interpreted some of her poems, which seemed to have been charged with bisexual imagery, and inferred certain theories on the workings of the poet’s mind by analysing her language, style and life. Revisiting her bitter exchange with Hughes, Rose had put the question, ‘How not to write a biography of Sylvia Plath?’, at the heart of her project.It seems to me that an equally, if not more, pertinent exercise would be to figure out ‘How not to read Sylvia Plath’ today.
Indeed, one of Ted’s chief concerns was the effect Rose’s reading of Plath would have on his children and, by extension, on his own public reputation.Sadly, Plath’s suicide was only the first of a string of tragedies to haunt him. Six years after Plath’s death, Assia Wevill,his lover, killed herself and her young daughter, exactly in the way Plath had done herself in. (In 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the poet-couple’s son, hanged himself, the latest victim in this blighted line.) For most of his life, Ted was at the receiving end of vicious accusations, especially from feminist critics and biographers of Plath until, in 2001, Elaine Feinstein, his friend and admirer, tried to salvage his character in a new biography.
Even a dim awareness of this history makes it impossible to read The Bell Jar as pure fiction, divested of its viscerally painful autobiographical parallels. The coincidences are far too many, and Plath herself was apprehensive about her mother trying to stop its publication. She first published it under a pseudonym(‘Victoria Lucas’) and worried about its thinly-disguised, and mostly unflattering, portraits of people close to her, including her own mother. Yet Esther, the twenty-year-old narrator of Bell Jar, is far from apologetic. “I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel,” she declares halfway through the book, “that would fix a lot of people.” It is this crisp conviction of youth that redeems this flawed but brilliant first novel which could have easily descended into self-pity and recriminations against others.
Damaged as she is in body and soul, Esther is never anxious to co-opt the reader into feeling sympathy for her.“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs,” she begins her tale with these words.A few pages later, she confesses, “I liked looking at people in crucial situations.” And this clinical tone seldom falters, even in the most disturbing of times: when, for instance, in a dark echo of the Rosenbergs electrocution, Esther is subjected to electro-therapy in clinics; when she takes a turn in a laboratory with Buddy Willard, her childhood sweetheart,inspecting foetuses preserved in formaldehyde; or when she fails to hang herself despite repeated attempts. In the last instance, she mulls to herself, sounding more determined than morose, “I would simply have to ambush [my body] with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all.”
Of course, there are exceptions,when things spiral out of control, when despair takes possession of Esther’s mind after her application to a writing programme is rejected, or when she is nearly assaulted by Marco, a ‘woman hater’. But re-reading the Bell Jar, after an interval of many years, I was generally struck by the lack of paranoia or any gratuitous self-pity in it, even though its protagonist is aware enough to acknowledge her own neurosis. For me, one of the best sentences in the novel is Esther’s observation on the virtues of a hot bath: “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” Or her sharp, self-ironizing tone, as she looks back on her unusual youth: “I collected men with interesting names.”
It is ultimately counter-productive, if not futile, to try to map the world of the novel on to Plath’s life, though the temptation to do so is understandable. Something unspeakable—a morbid fascination, a voyeur’s curiosity—enters the scene of reading when readers know that the author had died a tragic or untimely death. The focus of reading then shifts from fiction to facts, to clues that would reveal, or explain, the author’s life in a new light. The result is the mystique that surrounds the afterlife of so many writers who died young and became identified with certain types: we forget that Kafka was not just the master of absurdist gloom but a writer with a bleak sense of humour, that Keats was, and was not, a delicate young man who pined away for the love of Fanny Brawne, or that Shelley merely happened to have his dead friend Keats’s poems in his pocket when he was drowned in a boating accident.
In Plath’s case, the facts of her life—the early death of her father, the time she spent as a young girl working with a fashion magazine in New York, her nervous breakdown and going into therapy, her tumultuous marriage to Ted, trials as a single mother, and despair with the critical response to her writing—are well-documented, though there is no plausible reason to turn her marriage to Ted as the one major factor leading to her death. Equally, there is no excuse to read Esther’s experiences in The Bell Jar as simply Plath’s own, and to forget that what Esther goes through are the stuff of most young people’s lives. Insecurity, jealousy, angst, suffering—these are emotions not owned by Esther and her creator alone, but are merely the raw materials that bind literature to life.
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First Published: Mon, Jan 21 2013. 12 27 PM IST
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