- Esther Greenwood’s Internship:White-Collar Work and Literary Careerism in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar
Somehow I feel a great need for having a Job, no matter what, no matter how unremunerative.Sylvia Plath, journal, 1952
Most students of contemporary literature know that The Bell Jar (1963) was based in part on an internship Sylvia Plath held at Mademoiselle magazine in the summer of 1953; fewer are familiar with the etymology of the term internship. In modern English usage, the word intern appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century as a transitive verb meaning “to confine” or “to detain,” as within the four walls of the hospitals where young physicians trained after finishing their medical degrees, or the borders of the camps where more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.1 As a consequence of the former development, which began around the turn of the twentieth century, the transitive verb gradually acquired intransitive and nominal force: it became possible to speak of interning somewhere (as opposed to being interned), or to call someone an intern (as opposed to an internee, detainee, or prisoner). [End Page 216]
So too did the word internship come to refer to a temporary and transitional period of supervised experiential learning, which is how it is most commonly used today, when internships are widely marketed and pursued as a prerequisite to gainful employment in the white-collar workplace.2 Between one and two million internships were completed in the United States in 2011, in fields ranging from politics and journalism to finance and engineering. Most paid less than minimum wage; many paid nothing at all (Perlin ix–xviii). In theory, arrangements like these are supposed to increase an intern’s chances of securing regular employment, but it is far from clear, especially as their rapid proliferation exerts downward pressure on labor standards, that internships still lead to good jobs—or even living wages—if ever they did.3 The term therefore designates a condition in which hopefulness and abjection are uneasily mixed, in which the promise of greater mobility and the threat of indefinite detention are simultaneously present.4
In what follows, I use the internship as a conceptual model for the ambiguous processes of autonomization through confinement that are narrated in The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s novel of mental breakdown and recovery. The protagonist and narrator of that novel, Esther Greenwood, is thrice interned: first, in the surprisingly illiberal offices of a New York fashion magazine; second, in the stifling precincts of her mother’s suburban home; and third, in a psychiatric hospital that is subtly but elaborately compared to a college, the institution most responsible for helping internships spread beyond the disciplinary confines of the medical profession. Though only the first of these narrative segments involves anything that looks conventionally like white-collar work, all three function together to provide Esther with the proper references and credentials, the hard-earned experience she needs to launch her uncertain literary career. Still, she cannot shake the feeling that her internships are somehow [End Page 217] counterproductive—that they are undermining rather than facilitating her professional development.
Elaborating this reading will require us to consider the experience on which Esther Greenwood’s internship was based—Plath’s at Mademoiselle—and to examine some of the broader conditions which made it possible for women like Plath to enter professions that had long been closed to them, even as their work continued to be devalued. We will also note how Plath adapts the form of the bildungsroman—which has, since Goethe, taken the apprenticeship and journeyman years as its paradigmatic experiences—to this new and decidedly less romantic rite of passage. In closing, I will speculate on some of the consequences of Plath’s inadvertent invention of the internship narrative, a subgenre that continues to fascinate the contemporary creative class, many of whom first encounter The Bell Jar as high school or college students who would like nothing better than to land a glamorous media-industry “job” like Esther’s. It is precisely for this reason that we might want to start reading (and teaching) The...