So, my boss is a Virginia Wolfe scholar, but hates Silvia Plath. I dont know if its the crazy, bipolar, suicidal poetry that turns people away, or the cowardly way she died, or perhaps her writing doesnt just grab you, or make you think the way that good writers do. But, for this particular class I took, I had to read and write about Plath. I came up with the following, which is based on the idea that she wrote her prose from a poet's perspective, so that even though the narrative was easy to follow and often bland, sometimes there are points of poetic brilliance. Maybe if she could get her head out of the oven, she could have written something good.
Upon closer reading of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar, one can find a variety of themes, symbols, and allusions easily looked over at a first glance. Plath’s experience writing poetry has helped her fill her prose with description and metaphor. Water is one of the more prevalent images in the Bell Jar. This paper will look closer at the ideas, allusions, and uses of water as an image and examine the many uses of water in the Bell Jar to ascertain the importance of this image to the complete work.
Water can be seen as a cleansing force for Plath’s character Esther. Esther uses water to rejuvenate herself. At the beginning of the novel, Esther claims to often submerge herself in hot baths. She muses, “there must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure […] Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with someone I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then say, ‘I’ll take a hot bath’” (Plath, 19). This seems to be her solution to everything and can be seen as a passive way to handle all of her issues.
There is evidence in holistic medicine to suggest water can actually be a healing agent. There is a theory posed by Dr. Masaru Emoto that he calls the Hidden Messages in Water. In the book by the same name, Emoto poses the idea that water can absorb and hold human emotions (Emoto). The idea suggests that water can hold both positive and negative feelings. A more realistic study had been done in the 19th century by the German priest Sebastian Kneipp. He stressed the importance of ritualistic baths much like those used in Rome and Egypt (Baruch).
As used by Plath the character Esther feels she is truly helped by this practice of submerging oneself. After explaining her habit of taking hot baths to deal with positive and negative stressers, Esther goes on to explain that she can lay in the tub “for near an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again” (Plath, 20). Esther admits she uses the water to make things in her life disappear, if only for a little while. The bath becomes a vehicle for escapism. She states, “Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving and none of them matter anymore. I don’t know them, I have never known them, and I am pure” (20).
Chemically, according to the United States Geological Survey site on water properties, water can easily dissolve more things naturally than any other liquid, thus the nickname “the universal solvent” (USGS). Esther dissolves her problems in water, it becomes her ally, she bathes herself clean, using the universal solvent to universally solve her poor decisions. This passive tactic fails Esther, however, contributing to her fall into depression. The idea of the warm bath changes from a place of quiet contemplation and renewal, to a good place to witness death. The water, to Esther, is the perfect medium to watch her blood, her life, flow out of her, and becomes an excuse for her not to end her life just yet. She muses, “how stupid I was, I had the razors, but no warm bath” (Plath, 151).
Water can also be seen as an allusion to the bell jar. Although Esther has used water in the past to her benefit, it does not always seem to be a positive force. It becomes a prison of sorts, at once soaking up depression and reflecting it back. Esther’s worst of times leave stains on her psyche like the one seen in the hallway, the “faint irregular dark stain before [her] door as if someone had by accident spilled a glass of water there, but dabbed it dry again” (23). The sickness from contaminated crab is another good example of the use of water as negative. Not only is crab a creature of the sea, living in water, but more importantly, Esther describes her sickness as rolling through her “in great waves. After each wave it would leave [her] limp as a wet leaf” (44). Throughout this episode, the water running in the sink is the only sound left going as Esther passes out on the floor of the bathroom. The continuous pouring of water into porcelain mirrors the continuous waves of sickness, which stop only when the nurses find Esther the next morning.
Water becomes its own character, in a way. Plath has given it significant time and place in the novel. It has character, which mirrors the moods of Esther. At first, water is serene, calming, clear. By the time Esther gets to the beach, the Sea is seen as turmoil, dangerous, and cold. The way Esther describes the water can be linked to how Esther feels inside. This is near when she begins cutting, wandering aimlessly, and feeling the heaviness of hopelessness, and loneliness associated with depression. Esther looks out to the sea, and shares how “the drench seemed to come off the sea floor itself, where blind white fish ferried themselves by their own light through the great polar cold. I saw shark’s teeth and whales earbones littered about like gravestones” (153). Esther gives this description of macabre which is really an update on her emotional state as cold, and dark, and hostile.
Rain plays an interesting role as well, starting with the food poisoning incident in New York (it rains during the trip from the theater to the hotel). Rain shows up again while Esther visits the cemetery. The scene begins with “a fine drizzle started drifting down from the grey sky, and I grew very depressed” (166). This scene culminates in Esther breaking down in the “cold salt rain” mourning the loss of her father, and therefore a mythical future that never happened.
After reviewing Plath’s use of the symbol of water, in all its obvious, and more subtle allusion, the conclusion of the importance of water can be summed up by a small anecdote by Esther. Esther recalls a conversation with the raincoat salesgirl which ends in the profound revelation that “no raincoat is ever water-reppellent” but it can be showerproof (166). This, more than anything else, speaks to the psyche of individuals and of life more than anything else. Esther spends the entire novel unable to rise above personal tragedy, self doubt, and uncertainty which leads her to dark places of depression and suicidal tendancy. Using weather as a metaphor for these feelings accurately describes cycles of life and cycles of emotion and shows that these things do pass, people are able to move on, to a point. But, as the salesgirl points out, we aren’t water proof. By the end of the novel, Esther realizes that after all she went through, she did get wet, but she won’t always be underwater.