The Bell Jar | Critical Essay by Ted Hughes

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of The Bell Jar.
This section contains 3,008 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Ted Hughes

Critical Essay by Ted Hughes

SOURCE: "On Sylvia Plath," in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 1-10.

In the following essay, Hughes comments on Plath's struggle to transcribe her private anguish into the fiction of The Bell Jar. According to Hughes, Plath's difficulty stemmed from her effort to produce a novel with both mythic aspirations and cathartic ritual based in reality.

Sylvia Plath's intense ambition to write a novel provides one of the main and most distressful themes of her early journals. Her inability to start—or worse, her various attempts to start—brought her repeatedly to near despair. She agonized about style, tone, structure, subject matter.

Throughout that same period, her poetry struggled into being against only slightly less resistance. Plenty of poems survive, perhaps because each of her convulsive efforts to break through the mysterious barriers by way of verse sufficed to complete a short poem—which could then be sold for cash and bore comparison with what other poets were publishing. But she knew these poems were not what she wanted. She valued them far more highly than her prose, because at least they reflected, often very beautifully, the obsessive inner life that made her write them. But though they reflected it, she felt they did not contain it, did not release it.

       These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.
                                            ("Stillborn")

Her prose, however, seemed to her not even to reflect it.

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. Her high-minded, academic passion for classic novelists combined with the priorities of her own sophisticated poetic talent made her think of the ideal narrative prose as something densely wrought, richly charged, of all-encompassing, superfine subtleties, with James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James prominent in the pedigree. This is where most of her attempts to get her novel going foundered. They foundered because her vital inner creative life was not in them. Her heart, in other words, pulled her in the opposite direction—through Lawrence and Dostoyevski. On the evidence of The Bell Jar one could say, maybe, that her writer's distress might have had less to do with her conscious failure to add another thoroughbred to that classic stable of stylists than to her unconscious horror at being dragged remorselessly towards what she did not want to face—even though her true gift was waiting there to show her how to face it.

Her breakthrough came—by the backdoor. Spring 1959, in a moment of seemingly no importance, like a gambler, playful and reckless, out of the blue she wrote her short story "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams." This first-person narrative is composed in a voice that approximates the one she would find for The Bell Jar—a voice, that is, rather than a style. It whirls in a high-trapeze glitter of circus daring around one of her most serious terrors: her experience of the electroconvulsive shock treatment that jumped her out of the torpor in which her attempted suicide had left her.

Perhaps "Johnny Panic" was the divining work that located and opened the blocked spring. Change of home and travel prevented her from writing anything more till late fall. Then almost at once, with a place and a few brief weeks to concentrate, she made the first big breakthrough in her poetry. "Poem for a Birthday" returns to that stony source, but now lifts the shattered soul reborn from the "quarry of silences" where "men are mended," and where her "mendings itch." And the voice of Ariel can be heard clearing its throat.

Immediately after that, her writing was once again disrupted by physical upheavals: change of country, home-building, birth and infancy of her first child, all these interposed a full year, during which time that new voice, with the story it had to tell, stayed incommunicado. But in the spring of 1961 by good luck circumstances cooperated, giving her time and place to work uninterruptedly. Then at top speed and with very little revision from start to finish she wrote The Bell Jar.

In this narrative the voice has perfected itself. And what it has to tell is the author's psychic autobiography, the creation-myth of the person that had emerged in the "Poem for a Birthday" and that would go on in full cry through Ariel.

The Bell Jar is the story, in other words, from behind the electroconvulsive shock treatment. It dramatizes the decisive event of her adult life, which was her attempted suicide and accidental survival, and reveals how this attempt to annihilate herself had grown from the decisive event in her childhood, which was the death of her father when she was eight. Taken separately, each episode of the plot is a close-to-documentary account of something that did happen in the author's life. But the great and it might be said profoundly disturbing effect of this brisk assemblage is determined by two separate and contradictory elements. One of these operates on what could be called an upper level, the other on a lower.

The first, on the upper level, is the author's clearly recognizable purpose in the way she manipulates her materials. Her long-nursed ambition to write an objective novel about "life" was swept aside by a more urgent need. Fully aware of what she was doing, she modeled the sequence of episodes, and the various characters, into a ritual scenario for the heroine's symbolic death and rebirth. To her, this became the crucial aspect of the work. That mythic schema of violent initiation, in which the old self dies and the new self is born, or the false dies and the true is born, or the child dies and the adult is born, or the base animal dies and the spiritual self is born, which is fundamental to the major works of Lawrence and Dostoyevski, as well as to Christianity, can be said to have preoccupied her. Obviously, it preoccupied her in particular for very good reasons. She saw it as something other than one of imaginative literature's more important ideas. As far as she was concerned, her escape from her past and her conquest of the future, or in more immediate, real terms her well-being from day to day and even her very survival, depended absolutely on just how effectively she could impose this reinterpretation on her own history, within her own mind, and how potently her homemade version of the rite could give sustaining shape and positive direction to her psychological life. Her novel had to work as both the ranking of the mythic event and the liturgy, so to speak, of her own salvation.

The very writing of The Bell Jar did seem to succeed in performing this higher function, for the author, with astounding immediacy and power. And the role of each episode and character, as they operate on this level in the book, has been a good deal discussed.

The main movement of the action is the shift of the heroine, the "I," from artificial ego to authentic self—through a painful "death." The artificial ego is identified with the presiding moral regime of the widowed mother. The inner falsity and inadequacy of this complex induces the suicidal crisis. With the attempted suicide it is successfully dislodged, scapegoated into the heroine's double, Joan Gilling, and finally, at the end of the book, physically annihilated when Joan Gilling hangs herself. Simultaneously, the authentic self emerges into fierce rebellion against everything associated with the old ego. Her decisive act (the "positive" replay of her "negative" suicide) takes the form of a sanguinary defloration, carefully stage managed by the heroine, which liberates her authentic self into independence. On this plane, the novel is tightly related to the mythos visible in the plots and situations of the poems, which here and there share a good deal of its ritualized purpose. It can be read, in fact, as the logbook of their superficial mechanisms and meanings. To a degree, the novel is an image of the matrix in which the poems grew and from which they still draw life.

Without undergoing the psychic transformation of self-remaking, which she accomplished in writing this scenario, the author might not have come so swiftly and so fully, as she did, to the inspiration and release of Ariel. She might not have got there at all. As it is, a reader can chart her progress from the completion of the novel (late spring, 1961) to the first true Ariel poem ("Elm," mid-April 1962). More physical disruptions—holidays, changing homes, etc.—help to account for the absence of the new voice in the four or five poems ("Insomniac," "Widow," "Stars over the Dordogne," "The Rival," "Wuthering Heights") produced between late spring and mid-September. But in September she was able to settle once again to concentrated work, beginning with the ominous piece, "Blackberrying." Three more strides ("Finisterre," "The Surgeon at 2 a.m.," "Last Words") towards the land of the dead brought her to "The Moon and the Yew Tree," where her father lies under the roots and her mother mourns in heaven:

      The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
      The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
      The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
      Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
      How I would like to believe in tenderness
      The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
      Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
 
      I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
      Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
      Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
      Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
      Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
      The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
      And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness
        and silence.

Further exploration was disrupted by the birth of her second child in January 1962. But she was back on the path, in the depth of her vision, on the 4th of April, and found herself again in the same place, confronting the yew tree—which now consists of terrible music and opens to admit her. This is exactly as if she had entered her father's coffin.

      Empty and silly as plates,
      So the blind smile.
      I envy the big noises,
      The yew hedge of the Grosse Fuge.
 
      Deafness is something else.
      Such a dark funnel, my father!
      I see your voice
      Black and leafy, as in my childhood,
 
      A yew hedge of orders,
      Gothic and barbarous, pure German.
      Dead men cry from it.
      I am guilty of nothing.
 
      The yew my Christ, then.
      Is it not as tortured?
      And you, during the Great War
      In the California delicatessen
 
      Lopping the sausages!
      They color my sleep,
      Red, mottled, like cut necks.
      There was a silence!
 
      Great silence of another order.
      I was seven, I knew nothing.
      The world occurred.
      You had one leg, and a Prussian mind.
 
      Now similar clouds
      Are spreading their vacuous sheets.
      Do you say nothing?
      I am lame in the memory.
 
      I remember a blue eye,
      A briefcase of tangerines.
      This was a man, then!
      Death opened, like a black tree, blackly.
                                   (from "Little Fugue")

The actual yew tree of the poem, as she saw it from the door of her house, stood in her sunset, on the opposite side, due West. Due East, filling her dawn sky as she saw it from the back of her house, stood the Elm.

The fascinating thing is what now unfolded between the 2nd and the 19th of April. As it happened, the 2nd fell in the dark phase of the Moon (which emerged new on the 5th) and the 19th fell on the first day of the Full. On the 2nd, as I say, she had entered her father's coffin, under the yew tree. On the 4th she wrote "An Appearance," her point-blank portrait of the presiding genius of her false ego—that she was about to escape from at last. She then went on, through the 4th, 5th, and 7th of April, to write her three most purely beautiful, most free-spirited, most delicately elated poems—"Crossing the Water," "Among the Narcissi," and "Pheasant." What she was actually doing became clear only on the 19th! The real Pheasant, as in her poem, flew up into the real Elm. A few days before the 19th she had started a poem about the Elm itself. This had settled early into a constricted series of rhymes, in which one can see her groping for the new bearings with the old instruments. After twenty-one pages of struggle, the new bearings suddenly burst in on her, she finds the new instruments in her hands, and the voice of Ariel emerges fully fledged in "Elm." It emerges as a bird, "a cry":

      Nightly it flaps out,
      Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

In other words, between the 2nd and the 19th, she has been traveling underground ("Crossing the Water"), just like Osiris in his sun-boat being transported from his death in the West to his rebirth as a divine child (himself reborn as his own divine child in the form of a Falcon) in the East. And as can be seen, "Elm" recapitulates the ritual scenario of The Bell Jar:

     I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my
     great tap root:
     It is what you fear.
     I do not fear it: I have been there.
 
     .....................
 
     I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
     Scorched to the root
     My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
 
     Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
     A wind of such violence
     Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
 
     The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
     Cruelly, being barren.
     Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
 
     I let her go. I let her go
     Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
     How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
 
     I am inhabited by a cry.
     Nightly it flaps out
     Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
 
     I am terrified by this dark thing
     That sleeps in me;
     All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Through an apocalyptic disintegration, the Elm remains as the physical continuity of the speaker, as did Victoria Lucas in the novel.

The Moon, as always, corresponds to the nucleus of the artificial ego in its matriarchal regime, while the "soft, feathery" thing, the dark fierce bird that inhabits the tree, is the voice and spirit of the authentic self—the new voice and spirit of Ariel, with its deeper story still to be told.

It should not be surprising that the novel and poems are so closely related. They were not only gestated in the same imagination (utilizing a genetic code of symbolic signs that has few equals for consistency and precision), they were delivered, so to speak, in parallel. Though The Bell Jar had been finished by late spring, 1961, the publication process dragged on throughout 1962, and the book emerged to the public eye only on January 14th, 1963 (four weeks before her death). In late 1962, while the Ariel poems were being written, she corrected and sent off the novel's proofs, and worried over questions of possible libel. The last Ariel poem, "Sheep in Fog," came on December 2nd. This was also the last poem she wrote (except for the unfinished "Eavesdropper") until after the novel was published. It was then the first poem she picked up, on January 28th, when she made the correction that revealed it as the elegy and funeral cortege for the Ariel inspiration. Whereupon it became the first (three more written that same day and all eleven within the next week) of the final group, the true death-songs.

It is the curve of the mythic drama within the poems that directs a reader's attention back to the positive aspect of the rebirth ritual in the novel. I made the point that this ritual operates on an "upper level." With the help of the poems, one can see that the "positive" aspect of that ritual holds good only on that upper level—where her shaping will is the control, where the ritual magic is choreographed according to plan, and the rebirth is hopeful.

On the lower level, where what I called the second element makes itself felt, things are different. Her materials were the real explosive experience of her own life and attempted suicide. Her bid to refashion these materials ritually, to recreate her history and remake herself, is brilliant with a kind of desperation, lit with the dazzling powers of an all-out emergency. Everything depended on her bringing about a genuine alchemical change in that uranium. And for a time, the triumph seemed real—it enabled her to write Ariel. But it proved to be temporary. The reality of her materials was susceptible to her magical coercion—but only so far and for so long. In its true nature it remained stubbornly what it always was—inaccessible to manipulation. Inaccessible, at least, to that first, brave attempt. This helps to explain the raggedly imperfect art of a novel that nevertheless feels like a vital work, a work of existential emergency. In effect, two different books are fighting for the one story. While she tries to impose her positive, self-protective interpretation and nurse that germ of an authentic rebirth, in her stage-managed nativity ritual, the material itself is doing something else. It is disinterring its own actuality for the first time, and dictating its own document, telling the simple truth of what was, is being, and will be suffered. This, then, is the second element in The Bell Jar: the unalterable truth, the past and future reality, of her basic materials.

On this lower level, the symbolism discloses a pattern of tragedy that is like a magnetic field in the very ground of her being: that unalterable truth to the reality is her voice's deeper negative story. Because in each episode of the novel this deeper pattern contradicts the ritual on the upper level, everything on the upper level, every step of the ritual dance that is trying to compel "the good things to happen," acquires a tragic shadow. The poems, meanwhile, wear that ritual purpose more lightly and declare the deeper pattern more openly—sometimes shockingly so. The reader is bewildered because each level speaks in the equally-real-or-symbolic terms of the other. This simultaneity of the two levels is what makes the novel, the poems, and the author herself truly tragic.

(read more)

This section contains 3,008 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Ted Hughes