Archetypes & ‘The Bell Jar’

Death and peril are remarkably dominant elements in Plath’s text. Images of death populate the novel both in relation to Esther’s character (as experiences and projections) and as part of Esther’s environment.

Esther Greenwood experiences a number of near death and disturbing experiences over the course of The Bell Jar. Raging and violent men in sexually charged situations, food poisoning, suicide attempts and extreme blood loss are all part of Esther’s narrative and constitute a pattern of conflict.

Notably, these episodes feature imagery that can be related to mythology. Renewal by baptism and a recognizable death-and-resurrection cycle both serve to symbolically suggest that Esther’s conflicts may be cultural and metaphysical in addition to their more personal and pedestrian meanings. Taken collectively, water and blood imagery along with a rather direct evocation of the story of Lazarus point to a metaphorical (or even mythological) reading of the novel.

Myth Criticism & The Bell Jar

Myth criticism is a mode of literary scholarship that grew, in part, from the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung proposed the idea of a collective unconscious – a shared set of images, often metaphorical, which appear in both dreams and in mythology.

Jung’s idea presumes that the most basic psychological make-up of humanity constitutes a response to (and a means of processing) certain common situations in human life, such as sibling rivalry, parent-child relationships, romantic conflicts, and the individual’s growth process from child to adult. While specific instances of sibling rivalry will differ in detail, for instance, Jung’s theory supposes that the general scenario might be expressed in broadly similar terms – or through similar images, metaphors and tropes. These images cross cultural boundaries, according to Jung’s theory, since these basic scenarios occur in all cultures. As a result particular images and story constructs (narrative tropes) consistently populate myth narratives from ancient Babylonia to Ancient Greece and China.

Jung’s term for this body of images, metaphors and tropes is the collective unconscious. To simplify his theory significantly, Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious suggests that mythology is an expression of fundamental human conflicts formed in large part from a shared or universal area of the psyche. Mythology is a reflection of the way the human mind works to solve basic social, intellectual and psychological problems.

Myth criticism takes Jung’s notion of myth-as-collective-phenomenon and applies the idea to literature, not ancient mythology alone. As a mode of criticism, myth criticism was brought to prominence by Northrop Frye, a scholar who used the principles of Jung’s theory to analyze The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, the plays of Shakespeare, and many other works both contemporary and historical.

Symbolic imagery is key to Frye’s application of myth criticism. Identifying images that recur in various texts and which appear to bear a similar, encoded meaning from text to text, Frye developed what amounts to a mythic imagery lexicon. One example is the Staircase.

In his essay, “New Directions from Old,” Frye describes the function of the upward staircase in mythology (leading to enlightenment, epiphany, spiritual achievement, etc.) and the downward staircase (leading to occult experience, initiation, and often dark revelation).

When reading contemporary literature, the “myth critic” might assess an author’s use of such archetypal images, looking at ways in which a writer’s use of symbolic imagery might resonate with traditional uses of the same or similar imagery.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar presents a number of opportunities to apply myth criticism. Depictions of resurrection saturate the novel.

Esther experiences a number of symbolic deaths and at least two actual near-death experiences and emerges from each somehow renewed. Early in the novel after witnessing an orgiastic and somewhat violent bacchanal, Esther walks home alone through the city. Upon arriving at her room she is accosted by a sense of death and silence. In a scene of baptism and rebirth, Esther recovers by taking a long bath, emerging “pure and sweet as a new baby” (Chapter 3).

Other episodes of resurrection (symbolic death and rebirth) surround the food poisoning episode (Chapter 4), Esther’s suicide attempt (Chapter 13) and her trip to the hospital while hemorrhaging (Chapter 19).

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