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
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
Huges, Ted. "On Sylvia Plath." Raritan. Vol. 14, No.2, Fall, 1994. Available Online:
Fitzsimmons, John Dr. North American Film and Fiction. "Chapter 5: Sylvia Plath's
The Bell Jar." August 1996. Online 1 March 2005. Available:
Paschen, Elise, and Rebekah Presson Mosby, Eds. Poetry Speaks. "Anne Stevenson
on Sylvia Plath." from Bitter Flame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Naperville, Il:
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Perennial Classics, 1971.