Essay: Comparison Contrast of Sylvia Plath and Esther Greenwood

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Plath Bell Jar

The Life of Sylvia Plath and Her Bell Jar's Esther Greenwood: Points of Convergence and Contrast

It is not unusual for the line between autobiography and fiction to be blurred -- it has, in fact, become somewhat commonplace, and has served as a perspective for analysis and criticism for many works. The death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet shortly before the creation of his masterpiece Hamlet, the tales of Americans abroad by turn-of-the-century expatriates like Henry James, and drug-filled and possibly drug-induced ramblings of Jack Kerouac's On the Road have all been linked to or serve as examples of autobiographical fiction. There are elements -- of plot and/or character in addition to sentiment and experience -- in the literary texts that mirror certain events and/or people in the author's lives.

When the literary personage under examination happens to be a poet about whose life (and death) a great deal of controversy exists, the assignation of autobiographical attributes becomes a much trickier proposition than it might otherwise be. Poetry is all necessarily autobiographical in one sense; poetry inherently stems from a very personal place within the author. This does not mean that the exact nature of the events and characters, if any, described in a given poem are real-world descriptions of the poet's experiences, and given the layers of symbolism and meaning in a well-written poem it is almost impossible for such happenings and figures to be depicted in a realistic and truly autobiographical manner. Even in works of prose by a highly poetic author, then, the line between true autobiography and outright symbolic fiction becomes both broader and more blurred.

This is certainly the case with poet Sylvia Plath's single novel, The Bell Jar. The title refers to the way that the novel's protagonist and narrator, Esther Greenwood, feels trapped underneath a jar, struggling to breathe and set herself free in the world glimpsed through the glass. Esther undergoes a mental breakdown and several forms of therapy in the course of the novel; Plath herself was institutionalized more than once and suffered from a mental anguish that was never fully diagnosed in her lifetime. Plath committed suicide by suffocating on the gas from her kitchen oven at the age of thirty-one, just one month after the first publication of The Bell Jar. This paper will examine the details of Plath's life and the progression of Esther Greenwood through the plot of the novel in an attempt to determine the degree to which this novel can be considered an autobiographical work of Plath's, and further illuminating Plath's real biography through an interpretation and extrapolation of the symbolism contained in The Bell jar pertaining to Esther.

Sylvia Plath

By the age of eight, Massachusetts-born Sylvia Plath was a published poet, and the accomplishment and trajectory of her life -- until the tragic and sudden end to it -- was set to largely follow this pattern she set for herself early in life (Steinberg, par. 3). Growing up initially in a suburb of Boston and moving while still fairly young to Wellesley after the death of her father, Plath was always around a great deal of educated adults and was no stranger to tragedy (Steinberg, par. 2-3). Still, Plath excelled academically and earned herself a scholarship to Smith College through her achievement (Gilson par 1).

By the time she arrived at Smith, Plath already had an impressive list of magazines and other publication outlets in which her stories and poems had appeared (Gilson par 2). She was also to write over four hundred other poems while in attendance at Smith, and in 1953 Plath also began an internship at Mademoiselle magazine, adding both more excitement and more stress to her life (Gislon par. 2; Liukonnen par. 3). It was during this period in her life that Plath made her first suicide attempt, suffering a complete mental breakdown and trying to swallow an entire bottle of sleeping pills while hiding under her family home's porch (Steinberg par. 9). This is a period of Plath's life in which the fairly detailed and extensive journals she kept beginning in her adolescence thinned out and eventually stopped entirely, leaving the months leading up to her suicide attempt and the attempt itself -- as well as, of course, the next period of time -- largely a matter of conjecture when it comes to reconstructing Plath's experiences and thought processes (Steinberg, par. 5-9).

Plath returned to Smith in spite of her troubles and demonstrated quite handily that her emotional setbacks had not had an effect on her mental faculties; she once again excelled in her studies and graduated summa cum laude and earning herself a Fullbright scholarship to study at Cambridge in the process (Steinberg par. 12). England presented a new set of challenges to Sylvia Plath, who at twenty-three was already considered somewhat past her prime as far as a marrying prospect, and by several accounts -- including what exists of her own -- this started off as a very lonely time for Plath, at least initially (Steinberg par. 14-5; Gilson par. 7). Loneliness would not be the source of her anguish for long, however.

It was while in England that Plath first became aware of the poet Ted Hughes, then arranged to meet him at a party with famously violent and often exaggerated -- yet doubtless immediate -- results. The tumultuous and uncertain nature of their meeting would go on to typify much of their relationship during the years prior to their marriage, and for the nearly seven years of their marriage, during which Hughes was unfaithful and Plath was thought to be largely unstable (Steinberg; Liukonnen par. 7-9). The two were both incredibly passionate, about each other as well as bout other topics of common interest including poetry, and this -- as well as the purely personality-driven aspects of their relationship -- added a great deal of tumultuousness to their marriage, which their two children did nothing to alleviate as the relationship deteriorated further (Gilson par. 8).

Hughes eventually moved out of the home he shared with Plath and the couple's children and moved in with his mistress, Assia Wevill, late in 1962. In February, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by sealing herself in the kitchen, away from her children, and turning the gas on to her stove, effectively suffocating herself (Stinberg par. 43). There is some evidence that Plath expected to be found before she had died -- a note left for her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call her doctor went unnoticed when the gas leaked through the floorboards to his apartment, rendering him unconscious -- but her true intentions in this regard will never be truly known (Steinberg par. 43). What is certain is that Plath's gravesite has become a major attraction for many literary pilgrims, and that both her novel The Bell Jar and her impressive volumes of poetry continue to inspire people today.

The Bell Jar

The plot of The Bell Jar is quite clearly related to a direct period in its author's life, recounting the time when Esther Greenwood -- a smart and high achieving college girl on her summer internship at a major magazine -- suffers a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt before receiving treatment that puts her back together -- at the end of the novel's time-span, at any rate. The comparison to the same incidents in Sylvia Plath's actual life is far too great for the book not be considered at least semi-autobiographical, yet at the same time certain details of the novel make it a work of symbolism and fiction both in details that cannot be directly ascribed to Plath's own life and in others that seem to stand in direct contrast to what is known about Plath. The end result is a book that is largely autobiographical, but that which transcends the limitations of a true biography through the subjective nature of the author's perspective while writing if for no other reason.

Esther Greenwood is attending her month-long guest editorship at a major magazine in New York City during the same summer that Julian and Ethel Rosenberg were eventually executed for espionage. This is an incident that seems vaguely troubling to the protagonist, though she has difficulty developing any real reaction to the event; she is drawn in sharp contrast to two of her companions -- one a rather prissy conformist and the other a brash, rebellious, and highly opinionated young woman. Neither approach appeals to Esther, yet she cannot seem to solidify her own stance on the issue, which is reflective of her inability to really establish who she is or what she wants with any clarity or certainty.

Esther's rejection from a writing course to take place later that summer deepens her rejection and finds her spending the summer with her mother instead, which is not an ideal situation for the narrator. Several attempts to kill herself that almost border on the comic for the sheer depth of Esther tragic inability… [END OF PREVIEW]

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