Coming of Age, Coming Undone | The Bell Jar
words by Lauren Dundler
“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.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
― Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s seminal novel, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963 under a pseudonym – Victoria Lucas. These pages are filled with a haunting semi-autobiographical narrative that deals with the issues associated with understanding and establishing what constitutes a socially acceptable identity. Whilst The Bell Jar is rich in varied themes and concepts associated with the dynamic context of mid-century America – including the concerns of the strengthening feminist movement, and the lingering yet ubiquitous paranoia associated with the Cold War – there is a simpler matter at the core of Plath's novel that remains relevant regardless of one's time or place: the process of becoming an adult and leaving behind one’s childhood.
This novel deals with the profound yet familiar process of becoming increasingly exposed to the adult world – the 'real' world – and being unable to reconcile what one sees with the expectations we have fostered in our youth. Dealing with intense psychological and moral development, it is undeniably a coming of age story; but perhaps, more fittingly, it is a story of coming undone. Through the progress of our protagonist’s narrative we see her exposed to experiences which harm and even traumatise her – her relationship with Buddy Willard the hypocrite; her exposure to the sexually violent men involved with Doreen; her first sexual experience with the mathematician. She cannot reconcile her expectations of motherhood and the so-called miracle of childbirth with the stark reality of a woman actually giving birth on what seems to be some “awful torture table.” Even her internship in New York, which masquerades women empowerment as targeted consumerism, fails to live up to her expectations and career aspirations. Everywhere Esther looks, she is unable to accept what she is finally able to see – often causing her to become literally sick and physically harmed.
Esther Greenwood asks herself why she “couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more” leaving her to become “sad and tired.” This reflection reveals to the reader that Esther is very aware of what is happening around her and the social norms she must conform to, despite her ever-increasing isolation from society, but she is unable to fulfil these expectations and become the adult she is supposed to be. Her childhood filled with awards and scholarships is no longer an option for her and is now behind her, but as she observes the world around her Esther is unable to see any viable options ahead of her either. Society demands that she become “someone” but she cannot decipher who that “someone” should be.
Her greatest concern emerges when Esther is unable to identify a suitable mature identity that she can adopt – there are no female figures around her that she aspires to be, and no male figures she aspires to be with. Whilst she is surrounded by people who are successful in varying ways – personally, professionally, physically – her careful observations of society result in layers of critique that leave these potential role models found wanting. Relationships with men become especially problematic and the conservative gender roles of mid-century America fail to offer an intelligent, ambitious, unique and talented young woman the type of partnership she deserves. She is informed by her experiences that being married is akin to being brainwashed in a totalitarian state and Esther does not desire infinite security or to be the place where an arrow shoots-off from. She intends on maintaining an independent identity and wants “change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself.”
As Esther is unable to imagine a mature identity for her to become, she is no longer able to visualize the direction of her life – evoking the startling image of telegraph poles stretching out beyond her, demarcating the years of her life that have passed and with no pole beyond the nineteenth. In increasing amounts she is not only isolated from the world around her and her future, but also herself. Initially Esther – echoing Plath publishing this novel under a pseudonym – distances herself from her own identity, assuming false names and personas, but over time and through the decline of her mental health she reaches a stage where she is not even performing this isolation. She becomes unable to recognise her own handwriting and her own reflection in a mirror, resulting in a complete alienation from her own body and identity. Her malaise begins to surround her and the clumsy cruelty of available treatments drive her further into a state of depression, isolation and to suicidal attempts.
The Bell Jar is not an easy read. At times, it is unsettling and even distressing as we are forced to see the world through the eyes of a troubled young woman. We are forced to witness her vaguely ludicrous suicide attempts and are with her when she bobs up and down like a cork in the ocean, or when she walks around her mother’s home with a silk dressing-gown cord tied around her neck. We experience the lowest of her lows, and yet, instead of passing judgment on her, we turn page after page because there is something rather comforting about Plath’s novel.
Comforting because we have all been there, in varying degrees. We have all seen things we have not wanted to see, yet have been unable to stop observing them. We have all been shocked and confused by what the ‘real world’ actually involves, starkly separating ourselves from our childhood naivety. We have all been sitting at the crotch of that fig tree, watching our figs wrinkle and turn black as we struggle to decide which one to choose. We have been in Esther’s position – and will likely be there again – even though we are far removed from her context and its related concerns.
Fifty years have passed since the publication of this book and it still offers a transformative experience to its readers due to its raw exploration of the issues related to the transition into adulthood. In its pages we are invited to reflect on a process integral to the experience of being human – especially a young one – one filled with change, anxiety and the desire to reach some state of balance and stability when the world around us refuses to cease movement. Esther’s narrative deeply connects the reader with shared human experiences, reminding us that we cannot possibly be entirely alone or isolated in this world as many have felt, and will continue to feel, exactly the same way, regardless our context.
The Bell Jar is a visceral imagining of the coming-of-age story: a narrative where we are shown the internal chaos that emerges when we cannot reconcile our childhood expectations of the world with the stark reality of adulthood. Ultimately, regardless of time or place, gender or age, it is a cautionary tale of the danger of losing oneself in the journey of becoming the “someone” that society demands you be.