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IMAGES OF MADNESS AND RETRIEVAL: AN EXPLORATION OF METAPHOR IN THE BELL JAR Susan Coyle* Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is replete with metaphor: metaphor of death, of alienation, of losing one's self and, later, regaining that self. From the outset of the novel, where the narrator, Esther Greenwood, is obsessed with thoughts of cadavers, pickled babies, and the execution of the Rosenbergs, to the ending, where Esther consciously and triumphantly goes through a metaphoric rebirth, Plath takes the reader on a remarkable tour of metaphor. Through this use of metaphor, the reader comes to see, feel, and know Esther's world intimately and vividly. Essentially, the novel chronicles Esther's quest for identity, for authenticity , in a world that seems hostile to everything she wants. Annis Pratt, in Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, deals with this idea of "desire for authentic selfhood" in her chapter on the novel of development.1 Pratt asserts that "a considerable portion of mythology, religion, and literature is devoted to the quest of the youthful self for identity, an adventure often formalized in a ritual initiation into the mysteries of adulthood." In fiction of this type, there is generally "a turning point in the hero's life that is of both personal, psychological import and social significance."2 In The Bell Jar, the young protagonist is in search of herself, but she cannot quite fit herself into the patterns that she sees as available to her. In looking at the future that her society seems to have planned for her, she realizes that if she embraces it, she will be "growing up grotesquely," to use Pratt's terms.3 This kind of growing fills her with terror. The turning point in the novel, which has all the significance that Pratt indicates, is Esther's madness. After she is institutionalized, she slowly begins to put herself together, to develop a sense of the personally authentic. Throughout the novel, Esther is known most tellingly through her use of metaphor. Plath's use of imagery changes markedly prior to and after the suicide attempt that leads to the asylum; the images of prebreakdown are almost unrelievedly negative. The novel contains veritable cadences of death and remarkable images showing the hostility of the world around Esther, but the metaphors of primary interest are the ones that concern self, that reflect her states of mind. In the pre-breakdown part of the novel, Esther's sexual experiences are all somewhat dislocating: she cannot define herself as a sexual being. The patterns that she sees of marriage and motherhood make her loathe more than *Susan Coyle is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Akron. 162Susan Coyle desire either of these accepted institutions. Esther's negative view of herself as an individual is reflected in her choices of metaphor; these images are frequently very physical, tied to her body. Slowly, she becomes increasingly dissociated from herself, until a sense of the "other" is clearly established, a dark side of herself who acts almost without Esther 's volition. Contingently, there is a rebellion of matter: things (clothes in a pile, words on a page) that were previously predictable and inert now acquire an active and malevolent force of their own, a force the diminishing Esther is powerless to control. Language'symbols fall apart for the protagonist, and nothing is left to hold on to. After the turning point of the novel, which certainly does not conform to the traditional idea of an "adventure," unless it is a macabre adventure, these groups of metaphors change radically. Some do not go through any transformation; they die with Esther's madness. Others, such as the body images, change and become more positive, if less physical. In the "recovery" phase of The Bell Jar, Esther is known more through her actions and overt assertions, and the metaphors connected with these. The obsessive sense of self has been left behind, and the new self is more concerned with what she will be doing. Through her own effort, with Dr. Nolan's help, Esther ultimately forms an authentic self and manages to grow up rather than down. One of the most interesting...


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pp. 161-174
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