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Stultz 1 Michael Stultz Eng. 383 Dr. Levy 21 March 2005 The Poetry of Plath's Fiction In the Raritan critique, "On Sylvia Plath," Ted Hughes acknowledges The Bell Jar as a vehicle for Plath's late poetry, yet he admits his wife's frustrations in finding her narrative voice, "She agonized about style, tone, structure, subject matter" (1). Moreover, he claims Sylvia over-ambitiously attempts to tackle both the mythic structure of rebirth and salvation (as found in Dostoevsky and Lawrence) and the catharsis of her suicide attempts, leaving the reader "bewildered" by novel's end (8). He goes on to say that "as far as her difficulties with narrative prose went, in retrospect one can see a glaring mismatch between the great dreams of her novelistic ambition and the character of her actual gift" (1). Her actual gift is poetry, and although Hughes fails to admit it, the best and worst parts in The Bell Jar are indeed found in the poetry of Plath's fiction. It is my contention that the primary flaw of The Bell Jar is not the warring structures of dreams and reality; in fact, I find the cathartic element as a welcomed modern subversion of the mythic, masculine structure, a bewilderment that Plath, who likely suffered from bi-polar disorder, intended to share with her audience. No, the myth versus catharsis structure is what makes The Bell Jar a revelation into a troubled mind. To write a myth without autobiography would have denied the bewildered feminist in Plath, and simply to write a cathartic confessional, like the oft-compared Catcher in the Rye, would have removed The Bell Jar's most human quality--a female attempting what Stultz 2 men say is impossible. Ironically, the major flaw in The Bell Jar is Plath's lack of confidence in her poetic voice, whose playful tone reverts too often to poetic devices, particularly banal similes, in both the mythic and cathartic structures, which undercuts the former's ability to convince the reader of Esther's salvation but also the latter's ability to establish empathy for the tragic heroine. Ironically, it is The Bell Jar's lyrical failures that spawn Plath's most productive work, Ariel. Hughes analyzes Plath's poetry in three stages: "Juvenilia," early 1956 to late 1960 (The Colossus years), and late 1960 to death in 1963 (the Ariel years) (plathonline n.pag). The Bell Jar takes place in the first period (June 1953 to January 1954) but was written in the last two periods, first drafted as early as 1957, completed in 1962, and published in 1963 (sparknotes.com n.pag). Eileen Aird challenges Hughes contention that the birth of her children divided the latter periods, claiming the breakup of the Hughes-Plath marriage sparked Plath's "accelerations of quality and command" (1). We can assume Plath's problem in finding a voice for her directionless Esther Greenwood resulted in not wanting to imbue the perspective of either a cynical divorcée or contented mother in its narrative, keeping its conventions raw and unpolished like those of a green girl in college. This biographical information is pertinent to show that the overlooked Bell Jar may well have been the medium which shaped Plath's identity and led to her more mature poetic voice in Ariel. Plath's poetic voice is two-fold: anger and absolution. At its best, it attacks, purges, and confesses all at once. This is the voice of "Daddy," written in 1962, the same year The Bell Jar was completed: Stultz 3 stanza 2 Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time--- Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one grey toe Big as a Frisco seal stanza 16 There's a stake in your fat, black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always "knew" it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. (plathonline n.pag) Here, her words are weapons. Plath bombards the reader with imagery and metaphor: her "Daddy" is a shoe, a statue, a Nazi, a teacher, a devil, and a vampire, and she wants to escape from him and kill him and forget him in one fell plunge. She takes no prisoners, wielding a loose cannon control. There is introspection, but it is without self-pity. There is an undercurrent of playfulness in her grim tone, but it lurks around its margins, as if she were writing the poem with a pink pen in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other. This is the voice that comes in nervous fits and nightmares and leaves after only after a bloodletting. In The Bell Jar, this "Daddy" voice is used to break Marco's nose--and only in response to a sexual epithet at that. This voice of retaliation is one we want Plath to vocalize more often. Instead of being directionless, we want Esther, through action or language of her own, to take a stand against all that Plath, through her metaphors, criticizes: men, materialism, medicine, and maternity. We know Plath speaks through the feminist voices of Doreen and Jay Cee, and she frustrates us each time her voice wavers toward the matriarchs, Betsy and her mother. In the end, we see an undercurrent of feminism, but we see no real feminist. Stultz 4 But Plath's "Daddy" voice cannot be sustained long in narrative. If Sylvia were to write The Bell Jar in this destruction voice, her novel would have alienated a young audience with a litany of feminist complaints. So, Plath champions light lyricism and tempers her tone, adopting instead a teetering feminist voice that brandishes harmless weapons. She chooses depth of style over characterization, dismissing noble characters Doreen, Jay Cee, and Constantin in subsequent chapters and having her antagonist, Buddy, nothing more than a flashback hole up in a sanatorium. Halfway through the novel, Plath has limited her voice to the stuffy confines of Eshter's paralysis. Whereas this may seem a structural problem, as Hughes has it, I see it as an intrusion of poetry upon the prose, namely the overuse of subjective and "light verse" elements. Plath's other voice, of absolution, is not in control: "I wasn't steering anything" (2). This pre-"Daddy" voice tries to protect and retain identity, or at least to rationalize Esther's irrational failures. It is the conversational voice of "Sonnet: To Eva": All right, let's say you could take a skull and break it The way you'd crack a clock; you'd crush the bone Between steel palms of inclination, take it, Observing the wreck of metal and rare stone. This was a woman : her loves and stratagems Betrayed in mute geometry of broken Cogs and disks, inane mechanic whims, And idle coils of jargon yet unspoken. (plathonline n.pag) Here, Sylvia's Eva is a prisoner, shattered by a man and left to suffer a nervous breakdown, "The idiot bird leaps up and drunken leans / To chirp the hour in lunatic thirteens" (ibid). The passive Eva is acted upon and, like the mentally ill Esther, becomes the voice of catharsis and morose, self-centered lyricism. Sylvia milks the venom from Stultz 5 her "Daddy" voice when writing The Bell Jar, leaving her lesser "Eva" voice to bewilder the reader with the stale air of indecision. Anne Stevenson lauds the paradoxical complexity of Plath's poetry, saying it "is all of a piece": Its moments of tenderness work upon the heart as surely as its moments of terror and harsh resentment. And despite her exaggerated tone and the extreme violence of some of her energy, Plath did, courageously, open a door to reality. (Paschen 315) Stevenson goes on to praise Plath's "Lady Lazarus" persona "with its agressive assertion of regeneration, rejoice[ing] in so much verbal energy that the justice or injustice of the poet's accusations cease to matter" (Paschen 314). This may have been Plath's intention with The Bell Jar: to create a novel of such verbal energy that the decisions or indecisions of its narrator cease to matter. But language alone does not a great novel make. Certainly, Plath's first-time fiction does not contain the same punch as her well-rehearsed verse. Taken together, Plath's poetry reveals a wide range in tone, from the joy of newborn children to rage against patriarchy. But in The Bell Jar, she keeps her voice on a tighter leash, maintaining detachment in favor of sweetness or anger. If only Plath would let the cynicism drip from her tongue that first attracted Doreen to Esther, Plath's readers would have more willingly descended with her into collapse. They would have admired her protofeminist spunk, even though Esther was not as outspoken as Doreen. Or, if Esther would have spoken a tender aside to Buddy, it would have made her seem more human and her backlash against men and medicine all the more biting. Plath avoids Stultz 6 tenderness altogether, not even approaching it when the story begs for it, when she spends the night with Constantin. In a scene from "Ozzie and Hariet," the asexual Esther simply lays in bed and wonders what it would be like to be married; while Plath, the daring Romantic, could have at least made Constantin take the virgin in a fatherly embrace. Lyrically, the novel starts out well enough, with alliteration, allusion, and an air of existentialism: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York" (1). It foreshadows what Hughes says is the climax of the myth structure, her electroshock therapy. And then it deadpans into "I'm stupid about executions," a throw away line, given that she follows it with more introspection, "The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick..." It is this pattern of taking a metaphor (electrocution) and first objectifying it (as a newspaper headline) only to relate it to her experience (future electrocution) that shows a lack of stylistic control. The objective implicitly connotes the subjective, and there is no need to state both, and then the subjective repeatedly. In effect, Plath is adopting the bold language of metaphor, only to undercut with sentimentality, an unforgiveable sin for a poet. Plath's style obviously works better in poetry since there are fewer language contraints and no narrative gaps to fill; the poet can shift from object to self with more deftness. Examine the stanza from "Mad Girl's Love Song": God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade: Exit seraphim and Satan's men: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (plathonline n.pag) Stultz 7 Plath seemlessly shifts from external to internal in an effect-cause relationship, destroying the spritiual world and deifying herself in just three lines. The fact that this cannot be done in fiction is not the point; in The Bell Jar Plath wisely reaches for the stars with her extended metaphors (electrocution, the bell jar, the fig tree), but she waters down her lyricism with intermittent "light verse" which weakens their impact . Examine the first few similes in the novel: "...pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver's head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless baloon stinking of vinegar" (2). ...those uncomfortable, expensive clothes, hanging limp as fish in my closet" (2). "I just bumped from my hotel to work to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus" (2-3). "It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water" (4). "It suggested a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet" (5). "'Jay Cee's ugly as sin,' Doreen went on coolly" (5). "Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones" (7). "She smelled strong as a whole perfume store" (7). "I looked yellow as a Chinaman" (8). "...Doreen had gone suddenly dumb as a post..." (8). "...then we saw the girls from the magazine moving off in a row, one cab after another, like a wedding party with nothing but bridesmaids" (9). ..."I feel gawky and morbid as somebody in a sideshow" (9). "I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life" (10). Of these 13 similes, 9 are self-referrential, and 9 come at the end of paragraphs, which suggests Sylvia's overreaching attempts to call attention to and even drive the narrative with them. Only three, I think, are worthy: "the black, noseless balloon," "the secret voice," and "the negative of a person." The "numb trolleybus" is passable, but the rest are light verse throwaways. In fact, "dumb as a post," "like a magnet," "ugly as sin," "like so much water," and "yellow as a Chinaman" are downright clichés. Similes are trite to begin with, and in fiction they become even triter because the narrative subjugates Stultz 8 and trivializes them. They end up looking like green stop signs. And we keep reading, sometimes laughing as we pass. Plath's fiction is best when she assailes the reader with death imagery and metaphors (the aforementioned "noseless balloon," "secret voice," and "the negative of a person"). In fact, Plath makes no fewer than 26 references to death, tainted food, or bodily functions in the first 26 pages, connoting the rotten core of her mind and the materialistic 1950s culture: "Girls like that made me sick" (4); "Each time I took another sip it tasted more and more like dead water" (15); "A jet brown vomit flew from her mouth...the wisps of her blonde hair dabbling in it like tree roots in a bog..." (21); "rare roast beef...cold chicken...black caviar" (22); and "The sight of all the food stacked in those kitchens made me dizzy" (23-4). The sheer barrage of such imagery works, creating the stale air of the bell jar, but the astute critic sees these images floating above the fiction like those noseless balloons, knowing that they are scattered fragments of poems that, condensed into verse, would achieve greater impact, as evidenced in "Stillborn": These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis. They grew their toes and fingers well enough, Their little foreheads bulged with concentration. If they missed out on walking about like people It wasn't for any lack of mother-love. O I cannot explain what happened to them! They are proper in shape and number and every part. They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid! They smile and smile and smile at me. And still the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start. They are not pigs, they are not even fish, Though they have a piggy and a fishy air - It would be better if they were alive, and that's what they were. But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction, And they stupidly stare and do not speak of her. Stultz 9 It's as if Plath knowingly destabilizes her poetic devices like she herself has been dehumanized in the modern world of tainted crab meat and vacuous subways. The poetry sours in the bell jar, leaving malformed imagery on its pages. Ironically, these dead metaphors blend perfectly with her mythoi of regeneration and catharsis and give voice to a sunken cheeked disembodied persona. Some of the more fully developed ones are: "her gleaming tombstone teeth" (59); "Buddy's face hung over me, near and huge, like a distracted planet" (98); and "Doreen's body lying there in a pool of vomit like an ugly, concrete testimony (23); . Others are stillborn: "These cadavers were so un-human looking" (59), and "I felt like a hole in the ground" (143). Some are a combination of mismatched comparisons: ""My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass egg beater of revolving doors" (40); and "the face of Eisenhower beamed up at me, bald and blank as the face of a fetus in a bottle" (89). None of her prose anti-personification matches her counterparts of verse: "This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary...The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God" ("The Moon and the Yew Tree") (plathonline.com n.pag). Mary Ellman views these metaphors as "macabre conceits" from "one cracked mind" told from a "fun-house, nut-house angle" (Fitzsimmons 16). It is this balancing between the fun-house (comparing the president's face to a dead baby's) and nut-house (vomit as testimony) which is problematic in either a mythic and cathartic structure, and certainly in a combination. Plath attempts to be absurdist and confessional poet in prose, her second tongue. Nonetheless, this tightrope walk did give rise to "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," her magnum opuses. Stultz 10 Somehow, though, when compared to other "cracked mind" feminist fiction, like Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," there is a mismatch between the style and the lunacy of its speaker. Gillman's narrator speaks staccato paranoia, and the reader witnesses an urgent mental breakdown in the making. With Esther, Plath's dreamlike surreal atmosphere contains no such immediacy, maybe due to the gap between event and authorship. Nevertheless, given Plath's diagnosed illness and subsequent suicide, her prose should seem more poignantly tragic. Sylvia Plath takes on the world in The Bell Jar: men, materialism, maternity, the medical establishment, and, most precariously, literary tradition, which says a virgin novelist should not write an autobiography as a debut, certainly not a poet and failed suicide. One must first juggle sponge balls before knives. Certainly, critics may cite the novel's convoluted structure, over-reaching style, controversial themes, or convenient characterizations for its failure to become great. But it is for these mistakes that makes The Bell Jar important nonetheless, for its flaws provide Plath a context for honing her poetic voice to spawn the daring, luminuous verse of Ariel. Stultz 11 Works Cited Aird, Eileen. "'Poem for a Birthday' to 'Three Women': Development in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Critical Quarterly. Vol. 21, No.4, 1979. Availabe Online: <www.sylviaplath.de/plath/aird.html>. Huges, Ted. "On Sylvia Plath." Raritan. Vol. 14, No.2, Fall, 1994. Available Online: <www.sylviaplath.de/plath/hughesonsylvia.html>. Fitzsimmons, John Dr. North American Film and Fiction. "Chapter 5: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar." August 1996. Online 1 March 2005. Available: http://www.cqu.edu.au/arts/humanities/litstud/naff/naffch5plath.html#anchor436640 Paschen, Elise, and Rebekah Presson Mosby, Eds. Poetry Speaks. "Anne Stevenson on Sylvia Plath." from Bitter Flame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Naperville, Il: Sourcebooks, 2001. Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Perennial Classics, 1971.
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