Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’: I am, I am, I am

28 Jul 2023 | Written by Alice (The Joy Club)

English Literature and Language graduate and The Joy Club’s Content & Editorial Manager, Alice Garnett, explores Sylvia Plath in the context of mid-twentieth century America and Plath’s enduring relevance and relatability to women of all ages and across all generations…

To find out more about Sylvia Plath see Luke Wilkinson’s latest literary talk ‘Confessions: Examining Sylvia Plath’.

The name ‘Sylvia Plath’ is hardly synonymous with happy endings. In fact, her life was punctuated with tragedy, from the loss of her father during her childhood to her volatile marriage with Ted Hughes, which overshadowed much of her adulthood. Her creative works served as a depository for her turmoil. She used poetry and literature as a means to expel, to process and to confess to her innermost thoughts and feelings – things many of us wouldn’t dare to utter aloud.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts 1932, much of Plath’s work was inspired by the plight of mid-century American women. Whilst first-wave feminism had granted women the vote as well as the right to a university education, sociocultural pressures to remain housebound and domesticated remained strong.

In all of her writings – poetry, prose, letters and journal entries – Plath agonises over who she is against the restrictive expectations women were subjected (and are still subject) to. Plath’s struggle was not unique to her; countless women found themselves underwhelmed with their “lot”. It’s well-known that Valium – otherwise known as “Mother’s little helper” – was widely prescribed to housewives throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.

Plath’s contemporary, Betty Friedan, captured this struggle the daughters of first-wave feminism faced in her now-canonical work The Feminine Mystique (1963).

“The feminists had destroyed the old image of woman, but they could not erase the hostility, the prejudice, the discrimination that still remained.” – Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

It should be noted that these struggles primarily applied to white middle class women, though they were widespread across the United States and Britain. Women could go to university and expand their minds – but their horizons remained narrow, confined to a lifetime of domestic labour for often-ungrateful husbands.

“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?” – Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

In Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar – published the same year as The Feminine Mystique – her protagonist grapples with the struggle to be, to exist as a young woman in a world where women were still expected to settle for a small life of domestic servitude. Throughout the course of the novel, our narrator, Esther Greenwood, slips into a state of madness. Inspired by Plath’s real life, she is consequently subjected to the horrors of electroshock therapy – a gruelling treatment frequently prescribed for what we now would recognise as manic depression.

Esther’s inability to settle on the very fundamental question of her identity – of who she is – is what drives her to this insanity.

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

The steady, rhythmic repetition of “I am” echoes Plath’s protagonist’s fight to keep going, as she grounds herself in the present moment in an effort to make peace with her own existence. It’s lines like this that have given The Bell Jar cult status as a novel that hardly flinches in its raw depiction of mental illness.

Although The Bell Jar, much like Plath’s life, hardly has a happy ending, the novel is coveted for its honesty. By taking the leap to write a confessional novel – to bear all to her readers – Plath has paved the way towards more productive conversations concerning depression and its treatment.

Sylvia Plath has become synonymous with the very same struggle towards self-knowledge, agency and autonomy still familiar to many women today.

For more literary explorations, book join Mancunian poet Luke Wilkinson for an ‘Expedition into the world of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest‘ on Monday 7th August 11.00am.

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