Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Reflections on her legacy / Sylvia Plath by Sarah Churchwell

Sylvia Plath

Reflections on her legacy
Sylvia Plath 
by Sarah Churchwell

8 February 2013

Sarah Churchwell
 Sarah Churchwell 
Photograph: PR

In 1957, six years before The Bell Jar would be published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Sylvia Plath mused in her journals: "I could write a terrific novel. The tone is the problem. I'd like it to be serious, tragic, yet gay & rich & creative." Knowing that she shared "that fresh, brazen, colloquial voice," she thought she might model herself on JD Salinger, but worried that his first-person perspective could prove "limiting". The voice that Plath eventually created is indeed fresh, brazen and colloquial, but also sardonic and bitter, the story of a young woman's psychological disintegration and eventual – provisional – recovery. The tone of The Bell Jar is not its problem, but its triumph.
An acidic satire on the madness of 1950s America and the impossibility of living up to its contradictory ideals of womanhood, The Bell Jar is a much funnier book than its reputation as the favourite novel of morbidly self-obsessed adolescent girls suggests. Among the many ironies surrounding the novel's undeserved reputation for taking itself seriously, one of the sharpest is perhaps the way that it has tended to be dismissed along gender lines, as a book "merely" for women. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the men it depicts are either toxic or hopeless? When Esther Greenwood first sees a naked man, she recalls: "The only thing I could think of was a turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed." But Plath excoriates the women who conformed to the era's rules, as well; "girls like that make me sick," Esther repeats in a refrain that becomes increasingly pointed: her society is indeed making Esther sick. Having been hospitalised after a suicide attempt, Esther has an epiphany about the way that conventional femininity was trapping all the women like her: "What was there about us, in Belsize [Hospital], so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort."
 Esther has been straitjacketed by her era's rigid ideas about women and its double standards: when she is told, "what a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from," Esther responds that she "wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a 4th of July rocket". That is Esther's declaration of independence, and she will spend the rest of the novel fighting the kinds of battles that would eventually be called the sexual revolution. Appearing in the same year as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and a year after Doris Lessing's The Golden NotebookThe Bell Jar was part of that revolution – but also a book of biting wit, mordant social observation, and a moving exploration of how a search for integrity can lead to disintegration.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Granta)

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