- Plath and the Philosophical Novel
Some novelists may strike us as more philosophical than others, and the rare novelist may strike us as primarily philosophical. Sylvia Plath is one such writer. From the opening of her well-known The Bell Jar, the reader senses that a kind of individualism, cast perhaps in phenomenological terms, will pervade the piece, and that this is one work that cannot be read lightly or without attention.1
Plath's psychological states are frequently analyzed in connection with her poetry, and indeed, with respect to at least some of the poems, they cannot be given a full reading without such allusion. But The Bell Jar was until recently the sort of work that took the place in many curricula now occupied by other adolescent novels detailing the angst of growing up and the very real miseries of family relations. The parallel between, for example, Plath's frequent fugue states—referred to in her poems, and even in the titles of some of her poems—and portions of the descriptive material of her novel has not been explored in depth. Nor has there been a close examination of the semisolipsistic philosophy that seems to permeate the work, a type of view that, even without the electroshock episodes and the denouement, might make one fear for the author's sanity.
Plath was widely held to be deracinated, and she seemed incapable of creating or establishing the sorts of emotional ties that others might find to come naturally. But the ontology of Plath's work demands attention, and it has so far not received the sort of commentary that it deserves. [End Page 228] It will be the argument of this paper that a philosophy is to be found in The Bell Jar, and that it can and should be set out.
One of the hallmarks of The Bell Jar is its ability to translate everyday experience into the dissociative fugues of Plath's character, Esther Greenwood. For Esther, life has lost its quality of the mundane, and is a series of disjointed experiences that are unrecognizable to her as experiences of her own life. This cut-off quality is not unknown in philosophical work, and is something that we identify with, for example, the more profound parts of Descartes's Meditations, or even with the work of Kierkegaard.2 But Plath exhibits sheer mastery in her own evocations of this state, and although there are a number of poems in which she brings forth similar material, many passages from her novel are exemplary in this regard.3 At the very end of her book, as Esther is being released from the hospital, Plath writes:
"We'll take up where we left off, Esther," [her mother] had said, with her sweet, martyr's smile. "We'll act as if all this were a bad dream."
A bad dream.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.(BJ, p. 237)
An atmosphere of surrealistic, dreamlike sequences pervades the novel, and gives it much of its haunting flavor. It is not simply the case that Plath wants the reader to understand that this is what has happened to Esther—it is as if she wants the reader to participate in the experience, too. Because of this, parts of the work are painful and difficult to endure, and the reader may simply want to put the book down.
Jacqueline Rose, in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, notes the extent to which this notion of unreality, or of dreamlike figures, is a staple of her work.4 Making the point that Plath both haunts our culture and is an author whose works are haunted, she notes:
More than any other writer, perhaps, she lays bare the forms of psychic investment which lie, barely concealed, behind the processes through which a culture . . . evaluates and perpetuates itself. Plath wrote a great deal about haunting and ghosts.(HSP, p. 1) [End Page 229]
Plath's sense that the here and now is not completely real is a trope that extends throughout The Bell Jar, and a near constant in...