Critical Essays Plath, the Individual, versus Society


It is obvious from her poetry, from The Bell Jar, and from her other writings that Sylvia Plath was an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive girl and woman. How was it, then, that as an individual she never found a comfortable, comforting, and nurturing place for herself in the world?

When we look at her childhood, we see that Plath's father encouraged her precociousness and that Plath's mother made great efforts to see that her daughter would be successful in society. She certainly came from a family that encouraged and rewarded her achievements and made it clear that discipline was one of the keys to success.

Was the ill-fated, short life of Plath really grounded in her father's untimely death when she was barely eight years old? She writes of this loss again and again, but never does she seem to be able to give up grief, or perhaps give into grief so that she can go on. Her grandfather, a seemingly kind person who gave her attention and companionship, never was able to fill the void left by her father. Yet Plath's father does not seem to have been so exceptional, especially as a father. At first, he was even disappointed that Sylvia was a girl, and he was not, initially, even interested very much in fatherhood. But Plath apparently made herself so charming that he was won over.

Much of the superficial character of Plath seems based, especially from a reading of The Bell Jar, on appearing intelligent, being witty and "with-it." Esther, and also Plath herself, it seems, wanted to be the bright girl whose accomplishments would be the envy of everyone. What this led Plath to was a certain kind of youthful narcissism that we find ultimately distasteful, a narcissism that probably did not help the poet Sylvia in her attempts to mature. For example, in 1958, Plath wrote a poem called "I Want, I Want," and we are struck with the idea that Plath wanted much from life and that she wanted it quickiy.

If she never gave herself to mourning, as her mother never did (according to Plath's accounts of the tearless funeral), Plath, like a narcissistic person, never even gave herself wholly to her youthful desires. Thus, there is a thinness to even her own preoccupation with herself. We never find out just exactly what Esther can't stand about Buddy Willard, except that he is a hypocrite — by her terms.

Perhaps it is this immaturity that causes the youthful Plath to leap into the various stages of her life before coming to terms with the previous ones. Note that she throws herself into her academic work but does not give up her childhood feelings. Then she takes off for New York City before she has been able to absorb her college experiences. After her breakdown, she finishes college and is off to England. Before we know it, she is married and working on her writing and her career. Then quickly she has two children, and then she is separated from her husband. And we learn that while she was in the United States in 1958, she was seeing her psychiatrist again. All this is done very much like a child skipping from one rock to the next, never stopping for long. It is no wonder, therefore, that Esther was never able to make up her mind about which "fig" to choose. Plath, in a similar way, was always too busy taking bites out of each fig to settle on one particular fig.

A work that gives us keen insight into the competitive nature of the women of Plath's place and time is Jane Davison's The Fall of the Doll's House. Davison's work is a social history of women in relation to their homes, their domiciles. What we learn from her about Plath is instructive, and, important to her study, Davison was a peer of Plath since they shared a dorm at Smith. Davison, in telling us about the women of the 1950s — the ambitious, privileged ones who went to the "seven sister colleges" — paints a picture of young girls who wanted to be "tops" in everything. They wanted success in their careers, homes, and for themselves personally. They wanted to be bright and beautiful and rich. Davison tells us how Plath pored over women's magazines in an effort to write pieces that would sell. She quotes a letter in which Sylvia is writing home from England to her mother and begging for old copies of Ladies' Home Journal because she misses them so in London. Thus, we see that Plath didn't want to be just a good writer; she wanted to be a kind of perfect female who could decorate a house stunningly. And, of course, she could not fill all those roles. No wonder she became bitter at times. If society was lacking, so was Plath's idea of her place in it. How exhausting.

This scattering of forces was based, perhaps foremost, in Plath's insecurity and also perhaps in a certain kind of romantic egotism. Sylvia could do anything, yet she never felt worthy of one, single, solid position in life.

This inability to be really connected to outside roles, or groups, is clearly seen in her relationship with her family and friends, and also in the scenes set in the mental institution in The Bell Jar. We wonder how Plath really did deal with her marriage to Ted Hughes, despite all the letters to her mother describing how well things were going; for many years, clearly Plath did not accept her life wholeheartedly, nor did she thoroughly reject it either. When Esther is to have her picture taken for the Ladies' Day "summer splash," Esther hides in the bathroom because she feels like crying. She finds her modeling role distasteful, but she doesn't say "no" either.

This kind of neurosis that afflicts especially the young (male and female) has been described by many writers. Some authors view it as immaturity and allow their characters to at last grow up; some see it as budding rebellion against an unjust society, but even then the characters must eventually take the world into account. Some see it as "the sickness of youth," and the outcome of the individual's life depends on the individual's character (plus fate and/or history). In The Bell Jar, we never see Esther getting beyond this intense preoccupation with herself.

Sometimes we wonder if this narcissism might be due to the fact that Plath's neurosis was simply the style then, a style that we also see in Catcher in the Rye, a novel of the same era. This inability to make choices, to decide on responsibilities, plus the scattering tendencies, the fragmentation — all these were responses to the overly rigid, conservative times of the 1950s. Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, talks about cancer, but she makes the point that society decides the style of what consists of "tragic illness" and how its members will deal with the illness. Plath, in The Bell Jar, tells us much about the "style" of the time, and we realize that it is Esther's stint on the fashion magazines that, Plath seems to be saying, is responsible for Esther's breakdown.

We begin to wonder if Esther takes up mental illness partly because it is available to her and trendy. Then she gets caught in her game and becomes suicidal because she can't find a place for herself. Her narcissism has trapped her. She has pursued success and "happiness" to a dead end. She can't examine the past honestly, and she has no interest in the future. She can't internalize happy associations. She is an individual who is lost, adrift. Every idea for her future, in terms of jobs or roles, seems to be either distasteful to her or impossible to achieve. With that state of mind, expectations have not only dimnished, but disappeared. Death, then, seems the only path, suicide the only role.

And even though Esther survives, as did Plath in her first suicide attempt, Esther is still lost and indecisive at the end of the novel. We can see from such poems as "Lesbos" and "Daddy" that Plath did not find motherhood and marriage to be roles that particularly suited and fulfilled her; in fact, her anger was quite intense because of these roles. These roles were like "institutions" — that is, they restricted and tormented her, just as school, the magazine, and the mental hospital did.

Plath should have made her peace with the institutions of society or else developed ways to avoid them. Unfortunately, she got tangled up in her own narcissism, and even though that may have sparked superlative poetry from her, in the end it was not self-protective. It was ultimately only self-absorbing and self-destructive. Clearly, it was only in poetry and in her own self-tortured darkness that Plath found a place for herself. And that place was not safe — or healthy. In her other social roles, Plath never found real absorption or completion. Initially, she may have felt fulfilled to have her two babies, one a girl and one a boy, but her poetry and The Bell Jar give us too many negative images of the burdens of cleaning up after puking infants to make us believe that this could ever have been an accepted, part-of-motherhood job for Plath.

Plath was alienated. The institutions that she describes in The Bell Jar leave Esther alienated. Plath's father and his academic career gave her the idea that her relationship to society was to be determined by her success in school. And Plath did that — she was academically successful — but it did not make her happy; eventually she abandoned her academic teaching career at Smith. Then there is the portrait of the parents' marriage and the kind of household that her mother was in charge of after the father's death. As a parallel, Esther cannot embrace this role for herself, as she so clearly points out when she is talking about Mrs. Willard. Consider also the emptiness of the Boston suburb; this is what depresses Esther so much before her first suicide attempt. In The Bell Jar, Plath paints a very bitter portrait of her schools — at least the negative side that made her feel out of place.

Later, we encounter Plath's conflicts with institutions — that is, Esther's conflicts with the mental hospitals. Plath did not find a role — not even here. Unlike Joan, Plath did not want to become a female psychiatrist. Perhaps she was happier in England, at Cambridge, and after she married Ted Hughes, but her poem "Daddy" makes us question how right marriage was for Plath.

We see, through her portrayal of Esther and from accounts of Plath's life, that she had a very difficult time finding comfort in traditional social roles, especially roles associated with traditional institutions. Supposedly, according to Plath's mother, there was to be a second novel that would tell the happy side of the same events of The Bell Jar. That novel, of course, was never written, and one reason why it was not written may have been because Plath was too alone in a world where only her poetry gave her relief.

We see Esther at the end of the novel going into the board meeting at the mental hospital. She is scared, and she feels unsure of herself. This is not the right place for her to be. "I stepped into the room," she says. The point is this: it is "the room." Plath never found her room, as in the phrase "a room of one's own" (from Virginia Woolf's long essay). Esther has progressed from her own bell jar to the board room, but it is "a place," a room in an institution that is too insensitive, too unimaginative, too rule-bound, and too traditional for Esther to feel relaxed. We know now why she retreated to the bell jar. There, she was herself at least. There, she had authenticity. And there, she found a kind of comfort that the world's rooms never gave her.

In conclusion, Plath's narcissism was two-edged. She created and enjoyed it, but she never found a workroom which she was comfortable in, and enjoyed, and the world never showed her a better place to be. Plath herself, it should be noted, never pressured the world's institutions to serve her and to help her. We regret that that never happened and that Sylvia Plath didn't find a "room" for herself where she could breathe freely and feel that Yes, this was her place, her role, her room.