4 Lessons We Can Learn From 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath (57th Anniversary)

tw: mentions of sexual assault and mental illness

These are solely my views and opinions, and mine alone. If you disagree that's cool :)

'The Bell Jar' remains poet and author, Sylvia Plath’s most influential work aside from her poetry and journals. The 1963 semi-autobiographical novel not only turns 57 this month but displays bold views on mental illness and women’s issues that shocked the conservative world of the mid-twentieth century and still remains an insightful read to those in the twenty-first century.

My love for this book is sooo subtle, I know. So I thought I'd write down some of the messages and cultural significance I got out of it and to hopefully encourage other people to read Plath's work.

1: Indulge in Your Dreams and Aspirations

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

Plath uses the now infamous metaphor of ‘starving beneath the fig tree’ to express Esther’s hopes and dreams but also how she is unable to decide what she wants for her future and in turn reaches for none of the metaphorical figs that represent her chosen ambition/s and starves to death.

She is stuck between two alternatives, a housewife or a working woman – one of which she is expected by society to take for the sake of her worth and existence. This easily represents the lack of opportunity women at the time faced, regardless of their ambition and talent. In the early twenty-first century, women are more (although not fully) able to reach for as many or whichever figs they please. Yet, there is still stigma and prejudice against women in regards to their choice of fig/s. Even fellow women snub each other in regards to their choices.

Lesson summary: This thought point really serves as a cautionary tale to anyone with an ambitious mind. Regardless of gender, indulge in your passions and ambitions, and don't starve yourself due to societal rules (or mental illness – see lesson four). Also, women are not a single title, women are not confined to a single destiny.

2: Don’t Sacrifice Yourself for the Sake of a Relationship

Esther is very clear with the reader that although she isn’t sure about what to do with her life, she doesn’t want to serve men because she fears that she’d lose her personality and passions in a role she does not want. She expresses this in her own words: “the trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters."

She discusses this with her love interest, Buddy who promises to not control her…. and then proceeds to try to control her by keeping the expectation that she’d be his housewife if they were to marry. He lets Esther know that he’ll “probably fall in love with a nurse” unless she visits him, saying that he will “find his feelings for the nurse as a mere infatuation” if she does what he says. The fact that Esther not only calls this out and reject him, again, would have been so out of place during the early 1960s, making Plath a certified bad-ass in my books.

Plath also describes the freedom of not having a such a negeative relationship in one's life and the benefits of not surrendering your personality and hobbies for love through Esther as she is suddenly struck by a vivid rush of inspiration and creativity once she frees herself from Buddy’s influence and guilt trips. She starts writing a book and feels very secure in herself for a time, enjoying the feeling of being a woman free of such a sexist man.

Lesson summary: Your values, your independence and your boundaries are not something that you should have to sacrifice for the sake of a relationship and/or partner.

3: Your Body is Your Property

Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault.

Getting to a darker side of this narrative, 'The Bell Jar' continues to relay sexuality and gender-related issues via Esther’s experiences. When Esther decides to lose her virginity, her body seems to punish her for it as she suddenly takes ill and needs medical attention. It can easily be assumed that Plath meant this as a metaphor as the self-absorbed and inconsiderate man Esther sleeps with receives no punishment whilst the repercussions for her are extreme. It’s a very telling metaphor of experiences that women still face today.

This is reinforced when Esther calls herself a 'slut' as she is (almost) sexually assaulted at a party by Marco, who assumes he has access to her body because she stepped outside with him. Yet, Esther reclaims herself by allowing Marco to crawl around in the mud to look for a dropped tie pin, leaving him in a very similar position as he had put her in. Marco not only represents one of the worst kinds of people in society but also a very toxic and common viewpoint as he places all blame on Esther (and women in general).

Esther lives in a time where women were told that they didn’t know what they were talking about in regards to their own bodies and consent, yet the mentality on survivors, women's sexuality and consent remains eerily similar in modern times. However, Plath's narrative not only provides insight into this ongoing issue but allows us, like Esther, to realise the unfairness of it and go against such culture.

Lesson summary: You, and you alone, are in charge of your body. No one is allowed to judge or control what you do with it, consensually.

4: The Journey is Never Over

Esther’s deteriorating mental health is the centre of 'The Bell Jar' as she is unable to enjoy her time in New York interning at a very prestigious magazine. The reader is introduced to the nature of her mental illness as Esther is given gifts, a lavish hotel room and is given a limited opportunity in regards to her internship, yet she cannot find happiness. Her trip takes several horrible turns as she gets food poisoning, feels inadequate at work, is sexually assaulted and overall feels detached and isolated. She proceeds to worsen, even as she returns home, and is placed into a mental hospital.

The fig tree metaphor may also relate to Esther’s deteriorating mental health. She is so talented and full of ambition, yet her mental illness is ensuring that she starves amongst the tree of opportunities. The fig tree could easily represent Esther’s pain and fear as she finds herself lost in her mental illness, unable to find her identity or sense of self in a world that is working against her ideals and ambitions.

Yet, Esther's story is very much a rollercoaster journey of self-discovery. As Esther puts it perfectly, "there ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice." The fact that her fate is left unknown makes it all the more realistic as one, but the fact that she has learned so much about the world around her and her place in it allows her to hopefully enter the world with a sense of hope and a revised viewpoint. Yet her journey is still far from over.

Lesson Summary: We are always changing and evolving as people, be patient with yourself. The journey to becoming the person you want to be may be tricky, but every step is worth it.

CLAIRE L. SMITH is an Australian author, poet and filmmaker. Her debut gothic horror novella, HELENA is due for release via Clash Books in October 2020.

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Copyright © Claire L. Smith 2020