Elements of Modern Fiction
I am, I am, I am – Sylvia Plath
Through the female protagonist Esther Greenwood—a semi-autobiographical version of Plath herself—Plath colours the lens through which the reader’s gaze will see and feel from the very beginning of The Bell Jar. We are transported into a ‘queer, sultry summer’ in which the Rosenbergs are to be electrocuted (Plath 1); fed images of the electrocution, and encouraged to imagine what being electrocuted would be like (Plath 1). And Esther comments: ‘I thought it must be the worst thing in the world’ (Plath 1). Already from this commentary Plath is managing readers’ expectations regarding how the narrative will be handled. Our focus is drawn not towards the event itself, but to how Esther perceives the event, underscoring that it is her experience with which we are concerned. This style of introduction serves two functions. First, it tells us that the plot is not going to be the focal aspect of Bell Jar, but rather, how Esther internalises the events comprising it. And second, that certainty will take a back seat to subjectivity.
In her article ‘Defining the Short Story’, Ferguson elucidates that an outgrowth of subjectivism is the idea that ‘when all we have in the world is our own experience of it,’ all received knowledge becomes suspect (53). Plath achieves this affect in different ways. The most obvious is in her choosing to tell the story through the first-person perspective. Throughout Bell Jar, ‘I’ is invoked unsparingly, to the point that we, the readers, inhabit Esther’s body. Thus, the readers are the ones who feel ‘in terrible danger of puking’ (39), the ones who feel ‘purged and holy and ready for a new life (44). Her journey is our journey, and as such, the isolation, alienation, and solipsism that she feels—all markers of the impressionist novel (Ferguson 53)—are given life on the page. The self-referential nature of Bell Jar reverberates in our reading of it, and speaks to its position as a (post) modern text.
In placing Bell Jar in its historical literary context, one must pay homage to Virginia Woolf. Plath started reading Woolf’s novels in 1957; during that time, she noted in her journals that ‘Virginia Woolf helps. Her novels make mine possible’ (Ferretter 18). In his book entitled Sylvia Plath’s Fiction, Ferreter notes that Plath was ‘clearly impressed by Woolf’s exploration of women’s complex experience of daily life’ (19) and that from Woolf Plath learnt the ‘possibility of writing entirely from within the experience and consciousness of a woman, however different or unliterary that may be from the perspective of literary history’ (19).
One way in which this experience can be conveyed is, as Ferguson suggests, when stories whose plots might seem of little apparent significance rely on metaphoric plots to develop themes of profound human import (55). In Bell Jar, that prominent theme is loneliness and everything it might involve, expressed by emphasising presentation of sensation and inner experience. A pointed demonstration of this comes when Esther is to have her photograph taken for a magazine. When the photographer asks Esther to give him a smile, her mouth obediently quirks up like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy (97). The cries rolling inside her spill out into the open, and when she lifts her head to discover the photographer as well as her friend Jay Cee have both abandoned her, she feels ‘limp and betrayed, like the skin shed by a terrible animal’ (98). A few scenes later, after the slick, woman-hating Marco has accosted her in the parking lot, Esther finds herself standing on a folding chair and leering out over the tall parapet at the blackened city, which resembles a funeral (106). She writes:
Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York (107).
It is established here that Esther feels stripped down by the city, and no less by life itself. This theme of dejection, abandonment, helplessness is what readers use to piece together the whole of the modern story (Ferguson 58). And in Bell Jar, this sort of reliance is vital to the story’s progressing. The setting in Bell Jar is often used not to just displace events, but enhance and layer them. As Ferreter explains:
Esther describes the delivery table as an instrument of torture: the very sight of its “stirrups”, “instruments”, “wires” and “tubes”, making it look like a “torture table”, strikes her dumb (Plath 61 qtd. in Ferreter 125, 126).
Here, the milieu underscores her feeling the outside world as hostile and jarring. In impressionist works, details of setting are often used metaphorically, and reflect the mood of the characters perceiving them (Ferguson 57). According to Ferguson’s assessment, setting can be stretched to include the overarching socio-political context in which a character, in this case Esther, finds herself. Plath grew up in an era in which there were blatant double standards for men and women concerning sexuality. She wrote in her personal journals that ‘the whole thing [double standards] sickens me’ (Forrester 119). When Esther finds herself in the incompetent, dismissive hands of Doctor Gordon, whose pencil is ‘tap, tap, tap’, tapping ‘at the same point on the green blotter, like a stalled walking-stick’ (125) we can infer that this emphasis on the pencil’s tapping reflects the fragility of Esther’s mental state, but also perhaps the relentlessness of the power structures that grate her. The photograph of Doctor Gordon’s family, which sits on his desk, isn’t a mere photograph; it’s a symbol of the hostile expectations of a patriarchal world that taunts her at every chance it gets (124). It makes her ‘furious’ (124).
Feeding into this theme of isolation and loneliness is the theme of time, and specifically Esther’s experience of it. There exists on the page a preoccupation with the future, or rather, with anything that is not. When she is lying next to Constantin, perhaps the most beautiful man she has ever seen (78), she can’t help but fantasise about what life would be like if he were her husband (80). What she imagines is dreary; she knows married life won’t fulfil her. Situations as this, where Esther’s imagination sweeps her into some speculative non-scenario, recur throughout the novel. Esther considers her life as if it were a fig tree:
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 (73)
Her inability to choose a fig parallels her inability to invest in reality, an indecisiveness that is integrated into the plot structure itself, suggesting the content of the piece leans heavily on the form. The method in which one scene or idea crashes into the next is sometimes almost manic. In modernist work, writers consciously mirror the chaos of the world in the narrative structure (Ferguson 56). A specific demonstration of this is how paragraphs are incessantly interrupted by discursive musings. When Esther is talking to Jay Cee about languages, for example, reflections about her mother being stoned for speaking German in America are triggered (30). The reader is pulled into the whirlwind of her experience, and thrust around accordingly. We move from epiphany to epiphany rather than chronologically, which marks Bell Jar as a distinctly impressionist work (56).
Plath’s concise use of prose adds to this effect, culminating to a point where the reader feels, like Esther, choked and overwhelmed and incapable. This attention to style—manipulation of diction, figuration, and syntactic and phonemic patterning—is yet another marker of the modern novel (Ferguson 57). Sentences are broken up with the conjunctive ‘and’ to create a feeling of breathlessness in the reader. Esther feels ‘dull and flat and full of shattered visions’ (57); ‘overstuffed and dull and disappointed’ (83); she experiences food poisoning thusly: ‘I pulled myself together and slowly rose and flushed the toilet for the tenth time and slopped the bowl clean and rolled… and unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall.’ Sentences are often short, clear, and expository: ‘I went cold with envy’ (56). What best exemplifies Plath’s precision of prose, however, comes in the phrase ‘I am I am I am.’ The first time this phrase is used, Esther is in mental shambles: she’s romanticised the act of drowning; swam so far out into sea she’s put herself at actual risk of drowning; and on that morning tried to hang herself (152). Here, the phrase is used without punctuation: ‘I am I am I am’ (152). Later, when the phrase is used again, we’re at a funeral—but it is not Esther’s. She’s alive, listening ‘to the old brag’ of her heart (233). And here, the phrase is used with commas: ‘I am, I am, I am’ (233). Without the commas the phrase is breathless, tormented, suffocating. With the commas, there is hope. The comma is the ground on which she is given permission to be. This sort of attention to style, so dense with meaning that a mere comma signifies worlds of emotion, is a hallmark of impressionist fiction (Ferguson 57).
The Bell Jar is a work in which the internalisation of a chaotic world spreads out into a highly subjective narrative voice, and echoes through a plot whose fractured presentation of time at once dazzles, bewilders, and saddens. What it may lack in plot development is expertly supplemented by a rich focus on an interior landscape. And it is in this way that Plath achieves a ‘unity of effect’ that sticks the work into the reader’s mind, as all great impressionist works do.
Ferguson, Suzanne C: “Defining the Short Story (Impressionism and Form)”. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Ed. Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988. 299-305. Reader.
Ferretter, Luke. Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study. Edinburgh University Press, 2010. http://www.jstor.org.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r25c0.31st Oct 16.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Print.