Plath's The Bell Jar as Female 'Bildungsroman'

Critic: Linda W. Wagner
Source: Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 12, Nos. 1-6, 1986, pp. 55-68. Reproduced by permission
Criticism about: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), also known as: Victoria Lucas, Mrs. Ted Hughes
Plath's The Bell Jar as Female `Bildungsroman',

One of the most misunderstood of contemporary novels, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is in structure and intent a highly conventional bildungsroman. Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the center of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."

Plath signals the important change of location at the opening of The Bell Jar: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.... New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat." Displaced, misled by the morning freshness, Greenwood describes a sterile, inimical setting for her descent into, and exploration of, a hell both personal and communal. Readers have often stressed the analogy between Greenwood and the Rosenbergs -- and sometimes lamented the inappropriateness of Plath's comparing her personal angst with their actual execution -- but in this opening description, the Rosenberg execution is just one of the threatening elements present in the New York context. It is symptomatic of the "foreign" country's hostility, shown in a myriad of ways throughout the novel.

In The Bell Jar, as in the traditional bildungsroman, the character's escape to a city images the opportunity to find self as well as truths about life.... As Buckley points out, however, the city is often ambivalent: "the city, which seems to promise infinite variety and newness, all too often brings a disenchantment more alarming and decisive than any dissatisfaction with the narrowness of provincial life." For Esther Greenwood, quiet Smith student almost delirious with the opportunity to go to New York and work for Ladies' Day for a month, the disappointment of her New York experience is cataclysmic. Rather than shape her life, it nearly ends it; and Plath structures the novel to show the process of disenchantment in rapid acceleration.

The novel opens in the midst of Greenwood's month in New York, although she tells the story in flashbacks; and for the first half of the book -- ten of its twenty chapters -- attention remains there, or on past experiences that are germane to the New York experiences. Greenwood recounts living with the other eleven girls on the Ladies' Day board at the Amazon Hotel, doing assignments for the tough fiction editor Jay Cee, going to lunches and dances, buying clothes, dating men very unlike the fellows she had known at college, and sorting through lifestyles like Doreen's which shock, bewilder, and yet fascinate her. Events as predictably mundane as these are hardly the stuff of exciting fiction but Plath has given them an unexpected drama because of the order in which they appear. The Bell Jar is plotted to establish two primary themes: that of Greenwood's developing identity, or lack of it; and that of her battle against submission to the authority of both older people and, more pertinently, of men. The second theme is sometimes absorbed by the first but Plath uses enough imagery of sexual conquest that it comes to have an almost equal importance. For a woman of the 1950s, finding an identity other than that of sweetheart, girlfriend, and wife and mother was a major achievement.

Greenwood's search for identity is described through a series of episodes that involve possible role models. Doreen, the Southern woman whose rebelliousness fascinates Esther, knows exactly what she will do with her time in New York. The first scene in the novel is Doreen's finding the macho Lenny Shepherd, disc jockey and playboy par excellance. Attracted by Doreen's "decadence," Esther goes along with the pair until the sexual jitterbug scene ends with Doreen's melon-like breasts flying out of her dress after she has bitten Lenny's ear lobe. Esther has called herself Elly Higginbottom in this scene, knowing instinctively that she wants to be protected from the kind of knowledge Doreen has. Plath describes Esther as a photo negative, a small black dot, a hole in the ground; and when she walks the 48 blocks home to the Amazon in panic, she sees no one recognizable in the mirror. (pp. 55-7)

The second "story" of the New York experience is the ptomaine poisoning of all the girls except Doreen after the Ladies' Day magazine luncheon. Plath's vignette of Jay Cee is imbedded in this account; the editor's great disappointment in Greenwood (because she has no motivation, no direction) serves to make Esther more depressed. As she comes near death from the poisoning, she also assesses the female role models available to her: her own mother, who urges her to learn shorthand; the older writer Philomena Guinea, who has befriended her but prescriptively; and Jay Cee, by now an admonitory figure. Although Esther feels "purged and holy and ready for a new life" after her ordeal, she cannot rid herself of the feeling of betrayal. No sooner had she realized Jay Cee ("I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I'd know what to do") than she had disappointed her.... Plath's handling of these early episodes makes clear Greenwood's very real confusion about her direction. As Buckley has pointed out, the apparent conflict with parent or location in the bildungsroman is secondary to the real conflict, which remains "personal in origin; the problem lies with the hero himself" (or herself).

Esther Greenwood's struggle to know herself, to be self-motivated, to become a writer as she has always dreamed is effectively presented through Plath's comparatively fragmented structure.... [Perhaps] we should not be disturbed that the face in [Esther's] mirror is mutable. We must recognize with sympathy, however, that she carries the weight of having to maintain a number of often conflicting identities -- the obliging daughter and the ungrateful woman, the successful writer and the immature student, the virginal girlfriend and the worldly lover. In its structure, The Bell Jar shows how closely these strands are interwoven.

While Plath is ostensibly writing about Esther's New York experiences and her quest for a female model, she regularly interjects comments about Buddy Willard, the Yale medical student who has proposed to Esther. Early references to him connect him with the haunting childbirth scene and the bottled foetuses and cadavers he has introduced Esther to. That these images are all connected with women's traditional choices in life -- to become mothers -- begins to frame the essential conflict between Buddy and Esther. From chapters five through eight Plath describes the romance between the two, but the extensive flashback seems less an intrusion than an explication. Esther is what she is in New York because of the indoctrination she has had at the hands of her socially-approved guide, Buddy Willard. For Buddy, women are helpmeets, submissive to husband's wishes; they have no identity in themself. Esther's desire to become a poet is nonsense (poems are "dust" in his vocabulary); her true role is to be virginal and accepting of his direction -- whether the terrain be sex or skiing. More explicit than their conversations are the images Plath chooses to describe Esther during this section, images of frustration and futility.

One central image is that of the fig tree, first introduced after Esther has nearly died from food poisoning and is reading the stories Ladies' Day has sent the convalescents. Lush in its green spring, the fig tree nourishes the love of an unaware couple. In contrast, Esther describes her love for Buddy as dying, 

we had met together under our own imaginary fig tree, and what we had seen wasn't a bird coming out of an egg but a baby coming out of a woman, and then something awful happened and we went our separate ways.
When the fig tree metaphor recurs to Esther, she sees it filled with fat purple figs.... She sits in the crotch of the tree, however, "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." The dilemma of her adolescence -- unlike that of most men -- was that any choice was also a relinquishing. Greenwood believed firmly that there was no way, in the American culture of the 1950s, that a talented woman could successfully combine a professional career with homemaking. As Mrs. Willard kept insisting, "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from."

Eventually, in Esther's metaphor, the figs rot and die, a conclusion which aligns the image tonally with the rest of the novel. In her highly visual presentation of Esther's education, Plath consistently shows characters who are poisoned, diseased, injured, bloodied, and even killed. The violence of her characterization seems a fitting parallel for the intensity of her feelings about the dilemmas Greenwood faces as she matures.... Greenwood's persona is clearly marked by feelings of uncertainty, based on her all-too-sharp understanding of her "absence of power." When Buddy, who has never skiied himself, "instructs" her in the sport and encourages her in the long run that breaks her leg in two places, she obeys him almost mindlessly. (The fact that she finds a sense of self and power in the run is an unexpected benefit for her.) Buddy's malevolence as he diagnoses the breaks and predicts that she will be in a cast for months is a gleeful insight into his real motives for maintaining their relationship while he is hospitalized for tuberculosis. Esther is his possession, his security, his way of keeping his own self image normal in the midst of his increasing plumpness and his fear of disease.

Buddy's sadistic treatment of Esther prepares the way for the last New York episode, Esther's date with the cruel woman-hater, Marco. Replete with scenes of violence, sexual aggression, mud and possession, this last of the New York stories plunges the reader further into the relentless depravity the city has provided. Marco's brutal rape attempt and his marking Esther with blood from his bleeding nose are physically even more insulting than his calling her slut. But even though the men in Esther's life are responsible for these events, Plath shows clearly that Esther's passivity and her lack of questioning are also responsible. Esther's malaise has made her incapable of dealing with aggression either subtle or overt -- except privately. Once she has returned to the Amazon, she carries all her expensive clothes to the roof of the hotel and throws them into the sky. Her anger at New York is at least partly misplaced, but Plath has shown that the city and its occupants have exacerbated wounds already given in more provincial and seemingly protective locations. Throwing out her clothes is tantamount to rejecting the traditional image of pretty, smart girl, object for man's acquisition (the use throughout the novel of the Ladies' Day photographs of the fashionably dressed coeds also builds to this scene).

Unfortunately, once Plath returns home -- dressed in Betsy's skirt and blouse and still carrying Marco's blood streaks on her face -- she finds that she has been rejected from the prestigious Harvard writing course. That blow destroys the last shred of self image (Greenwood as writer), and the second half of the novel shows Esther's education not in the process of becoming adult but rather in the process of becoming mad. Again, Plath structures the book so that role model figures are introduced and either discredited or approved. Esther's mother, who appears to think her daughter's insanity is just malingering, is quickly discredited. The irony is that Esther not only must live with the woman; she must also share a bedroom (and by implication, the most intimate parts of her life) with her. Joan Gilling, a Smith student and previous rival for Buddy's affections, presents the option of lesbian life, but her own stability has been irrevocably damaged and she later hangs herself. Doctor Norton, Esther's psychiatrist, is the warm, tolerant and just mentor whose efforts to help Esther understand herself are quickly rewarded. Doctor Norton gives her leave to both hate her mother, and the attitudes she represents, and to be fitted with a diaphragm, so that the previously closed world of sexual experience will be open to her. As Plath has presented both areas of experience throughout the novel, Esther needs to be free from conventional judgments so that she will not absorb so much guilt. (pp. 57-61)

The relentless guilt Esther feels as she looks from her bedroom window and sees the neighbor Dodo Conway wheeling her latest child of six while she is pregnant with the seventh, brings all the scattered images of childbirth and female responsibility to a climax. Unless she accepts this role, Esther will have no life -- this is the message her society, even the most supportive elements in it, gives her. But Plath has used one key image during the childbirth scene, that of a "long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain ... waiting to open up and shut her in again," and that image of relentless suffering recurs throughout the second half of The Bell Jar. It is, in fact, the title image, an encasement, unrelieved, where Esther is "stewing in my own sour air." More frightening than the bewildering crotch of the fig tree, the bell jar presents no choices, no alternatives, except death. Another late image is that of "a black, airless sack with no way out." Choice has been subsumed to guilty depression, and one of the refrains that haunts Esther is You'll never get anywhere like that, you'll never get anywhere like that.

And so the second half of the novel becomes a chronicle of Esther's education in suicide and her various suicide attempts. So expertly and completely have the contradictions of her adolescent education been presented in the first ten chapters that Plath needs do very little with background during the second half. Buddy Willard makes only one appearance, wondering sadly who will marry Esther now that she has been "here." Such a scene only confirms the intent of his characterization earlier in the book. Even during the second half of the novel, Esther remains the good student. In her study of suicide, she reads, asks questions, correlates material, chooses according to her own personality, and progresses just as if she were writing a term paper. All factual information is given in the context of her needs, however, so the essential charting of Esther's psyche dominates the rest of the book.

Many of the episodes in the latter part of the novel are skeletal. It is as if Plath were loathe to give up any important details but that she also realized that her readers were, in effect, reading two stories. The first half of The Bell Jar gives the classic female orientation and education, with obvious indications of the failure of that education appearing near the end of the New York experience. The second half gives an equally classic picture of mental deterioration and its treatment, a picture relatively new to fiction in the late 1950s, important both culturally and personally to Plath. But the exigencies of the fictional form were pressing, and Plath had already crowded many characters and episodes into her structure. The somewhat ambivalent ending may have occurred as much because the book was growing so long as because Plath was uncertain about the outcome of her protagonist. As the text makes clear, the main reason for a fairly open ending is that Esther herself had to remain unsure about the condition of her recovery, about her health in the future: she saw question marks; she hoped the bell jar would not close down again; but she also affirmed that her leaving the asylum was a birth, and that there should be "a ritual for being born twice." The recurrence of the "old brag" of her heart -- "I am, I am, I am" -- is much more comforting than another time the refrain had occurred, as she contemplated death through drowning.

The Esther Greenwood pictured in the later pages of The Bell Jar is a much more confident person. She knows she does not want to be like the lobotomized Valerie, incapable of any emotion. She knows real grief at Joan's funeral, and real anger at Buddy's visit. She understands the enormity of her mother's refusal to accept the truth about her illness, and the corresponding and somewhat compensatory generosity of Doctor Nolan's acceptance of it. Esther is also much more aggressive in her language. For the first time in the years depicted, she speaks directly. "`I have a bill here, Irwin,'" she says quietly to the man who was her first lover. "`I hate her,'" she admits to Doctor Nolan about her mother. "`You had nothing to do with us, Buddy,'" she says scathingly to her former boyfriend. Even early in her breakdown she is quite direct ("I can't sleep. I can't read.... ") but the irony in these encounters is that no one she speaks with will attend to what she is saying. Various doctors, her mother, friends persist in translating what she is saying ("I haven't slept for fourteen nights") into meanings that are acceptable to them. (pp. 61-3)

The closing lines of The Bell Jar surely draw a birth scene: 

There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice -- patched, retreaded and approved for the road. I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder. "All right, Esther." I rose and followed her to the open door. Pausing, for a brief breath, on the threshold, I saw the silver-haired doctor who had told me about the rivers and the Pilgrims on my first day, and the pocked, cadaverous face of Miss Huey, and eyes I thought I had recognized over white masks. The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as if by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.
In contrast to the doorless blankness of tunnels, sacks, and bell jars, this open door and Esther's ability to breathe are surely positive images.

Inherent in the notion of bildungsroman is the sense that such a novel will provide a blueprint for a successful education, however the word successful is defined. At times, as in Jude the Obscure, education comes too late to save the protagonist, but the issue is more the information to be conveyed than the factual ending of the character's saga. For Jerome Buckley, if the protagonist has the means to give life "some ultimate coherence," then education has been efficacious. The Bell Jar gives the reader the sense that Esther has, at least momentarily, gained the ability to achieve that coherence. Because so few bildungsromane deal with madness, however, exact comparisons between Plath's novel and those usually considered in such generic discussions are difficult; but because so many women's novels treat the subject of madness, The Bell Jar cannot be considered an anomaly. (pp. 64-5)

Among other differences between the conventional bildungsroman, which usually deals with a young man's education, and the female novel of experience in adolescence would be the shift in role from father as crucial parent to mother. Much of the process of education is imitative, so that figures which serve as role models will also shift from male to female. A female bildungsroman will thus seem to be peopled more heavily with women characters than with men, although cultural patterns would keep men -- economically, socially and sexually -- prominent. It may be because men must occur in the female novels that they come to play the role of adversary or antagonist, whereas in the male bildungsroman women can be simply omitted.

Educational experiences and choices leading to occupations will also differ, but none will be quite so persuasive as the female's need to choose between profession and domesticity. It is the inescapability of that choice that forces many a novel which would well be labeled bildungsroman into the category of domestic novel. Underlying what would seem to be the choice of profession is the less obvious issue of sexuality, which again plays a very different role in female adolescence than in male. In the conventional bildungsroman, sexual experience is but another step toward maturity. It suggests the eventual leaving one household to establish another. For a man, such a move may mean only that he hangs his hat in a different closet. For a woman, however, the move means a complete change of status, from mistress to servant, person responsible for the housekeeping in ways she would never have been as the young daughter of a house. A parallel degradation occurs in most representations of the sex act. Biological necessity and physical size mean that the female is usually a more passive partner in intercourse. The accoutrements of a sexual relationship are therefore different for women than for men, and the relationship may loom central to the female bildungsroman, while it may be almost peripheral to the male. Losing one's virginity unwisely seldom determines the eventual life of the male protagonist; it is the stuff of ostracism, madness, and suicide for a female, however. Plath's concern with Esther's sexual experience is relevant, certainly, for her choices will determine her life. Her aggression in finding Irwin so that she can be sexually experienced is a positive sign, but the characteristic irony- -that she be the one in a million to hemorrhage after intercourse -- mars the experience and tends to foreshadow the incipient bad luck which may follow cultural role reversal. As Plath knew only too well, society had its ways of punishing women who were too aggressive, too competent, and too masculine.

The apparent connections between Plath's experiences and Esther's are legitimate topics of discussion when bildungsromane are involved because the strength of such novels usually depends on the author's emotional involvement in the themes. Buckley points out that a bildungsroman is often an early novel, a first or a second, and that much of the life -- as well as the ambivalence -- of the novel exists because the author is so involved in the process he or she is describing. In Plath's case, The Bell Jar was not only her first novel; it was also published under a pseudonym. Limited to British publication in the original 1963 printing, under the authorship of "Victoria Lucas," the novel was an only partially disguised statement of Plath's anger toward a culture, and a family, that had nourished her only conditionally -- that would accept her only provided she did "acceptable" things. If one of the goals of writing such a book was self-discovery, then Plath's evident anger may have been as dismaying, for her in the early 1960s, as it was unexpected.

Because it is this tone of wrenching anger that makes The Bell Jar seem so different from the novels generally categorized as bildungsroman. The wry self-mockery that gives way to the cryptic poignance of Esther's madness has no antecedent in earlier novels of development. It is in tone and mood that Plath succeeded in making the conventional form -- which she followed in a number of important respects -- her own.

What The Bell Jar ultimately showed was a woman struggling to become whole, not a woman who had reached some sense of stable self. And that conclusion, according to Annis Pratt in Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, is what any reader might expect from a sensitive woman author. As Pratt observes, 

even the most conservative women authors create narratives manifesting an acute tension between what any normal human being might desire and what a woman must become. Women's fiction reflects an experience radically different from men's because our drive towards growth as persons is thwarted by our society's prescriptions concerning gender.... we are outcasts in the land....
So far as the generic differences are concerned, then, the female hero in a woman's bildungsroman will be "destined for disappointment." Pratt concludes, "The vitality and hopefulness characterizing the adolescent hero's attitude toward her future here meet and conflict with the expectations and dictates of the surrounding society. Every element of her desired world -- freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect, and use of her own erotic capabilities -- inevitably clashes with patriarchal norms."

The Bell Jar must certainly be read as the story of that inevitable clash, a dulled and dulling repetition of lives all too familiar to contemporary readers, and a testimony to the repressive cultural mold that trapped many mid-century women, forcing them outside what should have been their rightful, productive lives. For those of us who lived through the 1950s, The Bell Jar moves far beyond being Sylvia Plath's autobiography. (pp. 65-7)
Source: Linda W. Wagner, "Plath's The Bell Jar as Female `Bildungsroman'," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 12, Nos. 1-6, 1986, pp. 55-68. Reproduced by permission.

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