I don’t know what I ever saw in Esther Greenwood but there was definitely something there; it still is. While I can’t claim to be a Plath expert, but that’s on my to-do list, I can say this about her: she understands me. And you might ask yourself how a woman that died when my mother was only eight could understand me, particularly when I’m not certain that she understood herself. But I was introduced to Plath at seventeen and she’s the reason that I was an English major in college, always write “the feminist paper”, and now teach.
I was assigned an essay in my college writing class during my senior year of high school. We were to read two works by the same author and do something thematically. I can’t remember all the details about the assignment, but I do remember making my choice off the approved author’s: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. I’d purchased the book the summer before my junior year. I hadn’t yet read it and this seemed like the perfect reason to dive into the pages and Esther Greenwood’s story.
There was a research element to the paper too, which I think was my first exposure to either a.) literary theory (which I am sure didn’t happen) or b.) it was my first exposure to critical analysis. I remember sitting in my high school library with my friend, who was struggling with Kate Chopin, and looking up psychological treatment in the 1950s and 1960s. I recall being incensed with the expectations and limitations placed on women.
I was engulfed in Esther’s complicated world of restriction. And I wrote this essay before I knew that folding the corners of a book’s pages is tantamount to a million paper cuts on an infant’s foot. I have passages underlined and highlights throughout my war-torn book.
I highlighted this, “all my life, I’d told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me” (Plath 31). In the margin, in small lettering, the word “me” appears on the page. Thirty-one pages into the book, I wasn’t yet aware that Esther and I were in two very different places mentally.
But I connected with her. She was young, and curious, smart, and she was a writer. At seventeen, I didn’t realize that the book was largely about mental illness, women, and treatment (or what passed as treatment). All I knew was that I was desperate to be a “real” writer as well.
I still connect with Esther, and I wonder today how much of her story is a frightening reflection of a reality that doesn’t seem so distant. And as much as I’d like to pity her, I don’t. While her character is one that I don’t, I can’t, see myself wholly reflected in, she strikes me as more of a heroine than a victim. Even of her own design.
To complete my assignment, I purchased Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which is a collection of Plath’s short stories, notes, and drawings. Throughout it, I have passages underlined and page corners folded down. Again, I was embroiled in the world that she created in each of her stories, which, by the way, build thematically through the book.
My favorite line is near the end of “Cambridge Notes” from February, 1956. How fitting that I remember it in February, 2017? Plath writes, “what I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination. When the sky outside is merely pink, and the rooftops merely black: that photographic mind which paradoxically tells the truth, but the worthless truth, about the world” (272). I highlighted that passage in 2002 and fifteen years later, I wonder about its validity and find it striking.
I am currently researching the ways in which student voice is valued on university campuses. What happens if the imagination is stifled? Maybe that ought to be my research question.
When I made good on my promise to become “unstoppable” in college, I proceeded to graduate school. Once I was in my first class, I felt like the university made a mistake. I went, crying, to my mentor and said, “Oakland made a mistake! I don’t belong in this program! I just don’t get it.”
He was kind enough to chuckle and tell me that I’d jumped from the frying pan right into the fire. The first class I took was critical literary theory and I didn’t understand a word! To be honest, I still don’t. If I occasionally want to “sound” smart, I’ll throw a Foucault into my sentence, but it’s the one phrase that I half understand.
However, there was one theorist that I did understand. I “got” Jules Kristeva and her theory of abjection.
A few days ago, a friend of mine shared a Plath poem with me titled “Mushrooms” and it got me thinking of Kristeva. Mushrooms are fungus, the abject. And wasn’t that what Esther was talking about all along? Mental illness, the abject. The things we don’t want to touch.
I began studying Plath in 2002 because I thought The Bell Jar was about a writer, and it is. But it is also about the nasty, the things we don’t want to see, or touch, admit, or deal with in any real sense.
I plan to re-read it, as I did 1984, to a shocking new appreciation.
I think Esther’s ready for me and it’s time for both of us to learn something new from our bell jars.
Plath, Sylvia. “Cambridge Notes”. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Harper Perennial, 2000.
Plath, Sylvia. Bell Jar. Perennial Classics, 2000.