Critical Essays Anxiety about Death in The Bell Jar


One of the first observations one might make about The Bell Jar is that it is a book filled with fears about death. Even the bell jar itself is a suffocating tomb, an airless place where the soul dies, if not the body. Consider the first page of the book with its reference to the execution of the Rosenbergs and the speaker's inability to get a cadaver's head out of her mind — all these images and ideas point to what is perhaps the main preoccupation in the book: death.

When Esther wants Buddy Willard to show her "some really interesting hospital sights," this excursion includes a look at four cadavers and a number of glass bottles filled with dead babies. Esther is proud of how calm she is when observing these "gruesome things." She even nonchalantly leans her elbow on Buddy's cadaver while he dissects it. Later, watching a baby being born does not give Esther any sense of birth and life. She describes the baby as looking like a blue plum and is bothered by the fact that the mother is drugged into some, supposedly, painless state of oblivion.

Thus it is not really strange, thematically, that Plath's book soon starts to center on Esther's thoughts of suicide, on thoughts of death, for death-like images take precedence early in the book's plot, and they have been foremost in Esther's mind all along. Even when Buddy undresses before Esther, she tells him that she's only seen nude men as statues in museums, and her reaction to Buddy's genitals is that they look like "turkey necks and turkey gizzards"; this is humorous, but it reminds us that Plath has picked a death metaphor again, for she sees Buddy's life-giving genitals as being similar to pieces of dead, gutted birds.

Plath's immersion in thoughts of death pervades the book, and, indeed, there is a great deal of death in all of Plath's work. Likewise, Esther's anxiety about death takes precedence over all other of her anxieties about life. Esther, in fact, is so stricken with fear that she often can have no reaction at all to things that happen — except to lie. For example, when Buddy asks her how she liked watching the birth of the baby, she hedges, "Wonderful, I could see something like that every day." Yet she is, in reality, quite overcome by the "awful ordeal" that the woman must go through. And she is angered by the attitudes of the male doctors. Yet she expresses none of this, even to Buddy. Her fears and anxieties keep her from even expressing her own honest emotions. She buries those too, and thus with her lack of courage, she leads herself straight to depression.

The fear of death is the backside of the fear of life. And Esther, like a child, is fearful of life. By not expressing this and giving vent to her feelings, in some attempt to declare the validity of her reality, her life, she is thrust back to her fears and then to the ultimate fear: fear of dying.

This is more than merely a fear of death, or a fear of life. This is more than anxiety or depression. This is some kind of love for, or addiction for, one's own end. Perhaps this is truly the death instinct. And even though we might say that everyone has this and that anyone might succumb to it, given the right set of circumstances, some people — for example, Plath — have this instinct pervasively and continuously, and rarely does the life instinct overpower it.

In Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, the author talks about transference and how people need this in order to attempt to make themselves whole from their fears and anxieties. However, transference is a distortion of reality. "But now we see that this distortion has two dimensions: distortion due to the fear of life and death and distortion due to the heroic attempt to assure self-expansion and the intimate connection of one's inner self to surrounding nature."

Plath, in an attempt to deal with the great pain and anxiety of her life, focused her fears on the fear of death. This eventually became an obsession with her and thus led to the suicide attempts. She did "attempt to assure self-expansion" by writing about her inner experiences. This is the heroic part of her life — the fact that she did produce good poetry, as well as the fact that she did struggle in an attempt to insure some kind of immortality. But she could not get past the death theme and on to her life impulses — at least Plath's writing does not show us that she could do that. A poem that she wrote in the month of her death shows Plath returning to "that cadaver's head . . . like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar," an image that she mentions on the first page of The Bell Jar.

In her poem "Balloon," Plath tries to write about life, focusing on the Christmas holiday she has just celebrated and on a baby boy squeaking a balloon. Yet, in the end, the balloon is burst, leaving only a shred of red in the baby's fist. The poem's early images are disembodied, and then the end comes, with nothing. We recall the first lines of Plath's last poem, "Edge": "The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body . . . "

Dr. Johnson, an English essayist of the eighteenth century, said that the prospect of death concentrates the mind. We see that principle operating in Plath in a perverse way. Her death thoughts, however, led to excellent poetry. But her poetry never became a path to freedom from those thoughts. We see that The Bell Jar was an attempt at self-analysis, perhaps an attempt for Plath to cure herself. Yet it did not work. She was able to transform her fears and phobias and obsessions into literature, yet the literature did not become a way for her to save herself. Was it just that the poetic gaze into the abyss was too much for Plath? Did she become too enamored with the abyss? Did the high of creativity, the drug of writing poetry make Plath think that she could escape the pain of life somehow, and when she couldn't, she turned that anger on herself? For some reason, Plath was never able to get beyond or above, or over, her childish fears of life and death, and maybe even her fear of sex. She was not able to get to that point where the adult knows that life is to be lived and lived as an act of faith, as an act of courage. One must at some point, eventually, decide to choose life, not death. At this point, death becomes an adversary. Death is not the "sweet drug," not a friend.

We sympathize with Plath, however, who became tired of her struggle. We remember how the death of her father, when she was eight, affected the rest of her life, and of how, when she was eighteen and troubled after her summer in New York City, she wanted only to join him in his grave. Clearly, Plath desired — sometimes more than death — a superior power, or force, to give form and authority and form, and thus a sense of happiness, to her early life. Then he was gone, and she tried to replace him, as she so bitterly tells us in "Daddy": "I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look." Her art was an attempt to give herself to something with a life force and a possibility for immortality. Yet, in the end, her death force won, and her anger that she expresses in the line "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through" is turned back on herself. Only death, ultimately, will not disappoint Plath.