Poetry News

Kelly Coyne Captures Sylvia Plath's 'Magic Mirror'

By Harriet Staff
Sylvia Plath

Kelly Coyne adds to what we know from her piece at The Atlantic (as we mentioned recently), in a new article at Los Angeles Review of Books. Coyne walks readers through some of the themes explored in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, tracing it back to inquiries that Plath raised in her senior thesis at Smith College in 1954. The thesis, Coyne tells us, is titled "The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels." From there: 

“The Magic Mirror” explores literary doubles made up of a character’s repressed traits, and, as the double grows in power, it heralds the protagonist’s death. Citing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Plath argued that the choice to create a double works to “reveal hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner” and simultaneously exposes the driving conflicts of the novel housing that character. Her thesis claims that both Ivan, of The Brothers Karamazov, and Golyadkin, of The Double, have attempted to repress troubling aspects of their personalities, resulting in the double. Plath summons Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank to illustrate the myth of the double: typically, after the double is revealed to its originator, the creator seeks to hide away from it before finally developing a death wish. For Plath, such “desire for oblivion is expressed” in the “tendency to hide in shadows and in back hallways; it develops into a strong wish for death.”

The duality about which Plath wrote in her thesis provides the basis for the personality of Esther, the protagonist of Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar (1963). The novel chronicles Esther’s struggle with a mental polarity that ultimately results in her suicide attempt. Plath clearly lifted the descriptions for Esther’s character from Dostoyevsky. For example, Esther steps into an elevator and watches as “[t]he doors folded shut like a noiseless accordion. Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face.” Then she recognizes herself: “It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked.” The troubling racial distinction — contrasting Esther’s pallor against the darker skin of her double — revised The Brothers Karamazov’s similar racialization. Plath, quoting Dostoyevsky in her thesis, noted that Ivan’s double, Smerdyakov, is “wrinkled” and “yellow.” The distinct differences in appearance between originator and double, she continued, are meant to reflect the protagonist’s mental state and cultural status: “Ivan’s brilliance makes him highly acceptable in society, while Smerdyakov is ‘remarkably unsociable and taciturn.’”

Read on at Los Angeles Review of Books.

Originally Published: May 31st, 2018