The deepest truths about a human being can be expressed only in lies. Nietzsche knew this, Henry Miller knew this. So did Sylvia Plath. Why? Because each human being is the sum of the stories she tells herself: for example the stories about what she desires, and what she has decided to do with her life. And these stories must contradict each other, and so cannot all be true at the same time. To make the stories fit together, lie upon lie is required.
The “bell jar” in Plath’s novel is a metaphor for Esther Greenwood’s own body, which seems a cage to her, imprisoning her in life, in a life without meaning. Whether she is at home in Boston or working and partying in New York, whether she is at school or in an asylum, Esther feels trapped inside herself. She’s decided she wants to free herself, and believes that suicide is the only way to do this. She has made several attempts on her own life by the time she is put into an asylum.
Throughout the first part of the novel, before she is committed to the hospital, she can’t decide what she wants to do with herself. Well in fact she decides all kinds of things, each incompatible with the last: I will spend the summer in Cambridge and take a course, I will spend the summer writing a novel, I will learn shorthand … She wants everything at once, and this is what makes her “neurotic”: “I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”
The bell jar occasionally lifts, and she can smell the air outside. She is free from herself, her own mind and body that binds her. My favourite line from the whole book describes a moment, shortly after Esther has received shock treatment and is looking at the knife she has just used to crack an egg at breakfast: “I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.”
There’s something of the simultaneous hope and heartbreak of this book captured in that sentence. Esther identifies with her thoughts, however sad they make her, and with her decisions, however much they contradict each other. As she says at one point: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.” Story-telling, fabricating a life out of her thoughts and feelings, is essential to her, and it is heart-breaking to see a thought slip away from her after her treatment. As a poet she needs her thoughts. But being able to swing and soar in the empty sky from time to time allows in a kind of happiness, an ease that might save her, because it might give her a relief from the thoughts that so often end in thoughts of death. We can see hope in this empty sky.
Reading the novel I was hooked, following Esther this way and that, desiring what she desired in every moment, so that she didn’t seem neurotic to me, she seemed real. It’s the beauty of a novel like this that the realness of the main character means we feel we’re getting a sense of a life as it is lived, with all its contradictions. We’re given a real living story, a path to the truth which is the beating heart of a human being. In Plath’s words: “I am I am I am.”