- Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study by Luke Ferretter
In his chapter “Gender and Society in The Bell Jar” from his book Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study (2012), Luke Ferretter begins the chapter’s subsection on “Marriage” by discussing the 1950s “man shortage” (140)—a phenomenon identified by women’s magazines of the time. Here, Ferretter not only quotes from “[a] four-part Ladies’ Home Journal article entitled ‘How to be Marriageable,’” but he also cites advice from a 1958 McCall’s article, “129 Ways to Get a Husband” (140-41). The latter, Ferretter explains, encourages women to act “helpless” and “incapable” in order to attract a man (141). Among the advice given in this article is, “Get lost at football games” and “Stumble when you walk into a room that he’s in” (141). In discussing these historically situated publications, Ferretter characterizes the cultural climate in which Plath wrote her novel, articulating the way in which the ideologies of these popular publications inform the behaviors of Plath’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood. These carefully researched moments that Ferretter includes, however, do more than just illuminate Plath’s fiction; they become the principle strength of Ferretter’s work—a meticulously researched study of Plath’s fiction.
Ferretter asserts in his introduction, “There are two major ways of thinking about Sylvia Plath’s work in contemporary criticism”: either “as a progression towards the greatest poetry of Plath’s career, the poems of 1962 and 1963” or as “an investigation of ‘the other Sylvia Plath’” (1), a phrase Ferretter borrows from the title of Tracy Brain’s work. Ferretter aligns his work with the latter, and throughout his five-chapter study, he creates a comprehensive catalog of Plath’s fiction and provides insightful literary analysis of her works’ major themes.
As Ferretter notes, Plath wrote an extensive amount of fiction throughout her lifetime beginning with the short stories that she composed as a teenager and ending with Double Exposure, a novel she was working on at the time of her death. In his introduction, Ferretter categorizes this vast body of work. He divides it into short stories and novels, and within those sections, he classifies the work by situation (for instance, “Cambridge Stories”) and time period (“1956-57”). After situating Plath’s fiction historically for the reader, Ferretter devotes the remaining five chapters (“Literary Contexts,” “Plath’s Poetry and Fiction,” “The Politics of Plath’s Fiction,” “Gender and Society in The Bell Jar,” “Gender and Society in Plath’s Short Stories”) to a critical examination of that work. [End Page 306]
The strength of Ferretter’s study rests with his ability to put his exhaustive research of texts that influenced Plath in conversation with her fiction. For instance, his chapter “Literary Contexts” examines a range of sources from Virginia Woolf to women’s madness narratives that Plath drew upon in her writing. In one such moment, Ferretter close reads Plath’s annotated copy of Mrs Dalloway, an underlined passage where Woolf’s Clarissa is considering the ways in which her interactions with people and places have affected her sense of self. Ferretter points to a parallel in The Bell Jar where Esther, reflecting on her mental breakdown, asserts, “‘They were part of me. They were my landscape’ (BJ 227)” (18). This moment not only showcases Ferretter’s profound engagement with Plath’s archival material but his skill for realizing the connections Plath continually made with the written texts—both canonical and popular—that she encountered. Likewise, in his chapter “The Politics of Plath’s Fiction,” Ferretter examines Plath’s Cold War collage—a montage of political images juxtaposed with women’s magazines’ advertisements—for the way in which this piece comments on “the interests of women and children” during the time period (110). Ferretter’s analysis here, like the analysis throughout Sylvia Plath’s Fiction, is complex. He develops a point that is interesting in and of itself but that also bridges his analysis of the politics of Plath with the later chapters where he examines the...