Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'

The Bell Jar (Faber & Faber)
The Bell Jar (Faber & Faber)

Sylvia Plath spent the summer of 1953 in New York working for Mademoiselle magazine. In the first sentence of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, Plath’s narrator, tells us “I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Esther’s inability to know — to know what she was doing and whether her life was worth it — is contextualized by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Their execution is everywhere she turns. “The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.” Despite being the one who is free and alive, Esther feels impossibly trapped. When execution is all there is to read about, it is also all one can write about.

Esther feels like an object, exposed by the world Plath personifies. Personification points readers to authorship. The newspapers have eyes; there’s no room for Esther’s person. The author becomes an object in her imagination. She also tells us that she “is stupid about executions” as if someone could be smart about them. Her sense of not knowing how to remain an author in her story becomes punishing. 

Esther finds herself with two choices. She must be either completely separate or in total union with the Rosenbergs. “It had nothing to do with me,” she says, “but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.” This is a way of dominating. Esther feels alive imagining her death. This is what I think of as an obtuse suicidal fantasy. It suggests that the author, a budding Esther or Plath, finds herself in the midst of a dangerously stark binary: complete authority on the one hand and total vulnerability on the other. 

Like all fantasy, suicidal fantasy engages the unconscious, the stubbornly unseen aspects of our desire and history. Jacqueline Rose maintains, “Like blood, fantasy is thicker than water, all too solid [...]. Rose also makes clear that fantasy can shut us down. “If [fantasy] can be grounds for license and pleasure [...], it can just as well surface as fierce blockading protectiveness, walls up all around our inner and outer, psychic and historical, selves.”[1]

Esther being “stupid about executions” is this kind of wall, a defense against how horrible it is to want to die; how horrible it is to live in a world where we think killing people will save us from our murderousness. “Stupid” is also a way to dominate, a small exhibition of the hatred that stirs, aims, and misfires in suicidal and murderous fantasies. It is a way of showing, in Jessica Benjamin’s words, “how domination is anchored in the hearts of the dominated.”[2]

1. Jacqueline RoseThe Jacqueline Rose reader, ed. Ben Naparstek and Justin Clemens (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 126.

2. Jessica Benjamin, The bonds of love: psychoanalysis, feminism, and the problem of domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 5.