Poetry News

Strategies From Sylvia Plath's Undergrad Thesis Were Employed in The Bell Jar

By Harriet Staff
Sylvia Plath

Kelly Coyne relates early drafts of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar to her undergraduate thesis work, both of which were recently on view at the National Portrait Gallery show One Life: Sylvia Plath. Plath's thesis, writes Coyne, "provides a clear outline of these influences on her novel—and helps to illuminate how the author used cultural anxieties surrounding race and sexuality to convey her protagonist’s deeply fractured sense of self." More, from The Atlantic:

On a trip to Plath’s archives at Smith, I was able to read her thesis, in which Plath described the double as being made up of “the evil or repressed characteristics of its master.” As the double grows, it comes to endanger the novel’s protagonist. Plath focused her paper on two of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s works in particular: The Double and The Brothers Karamazov. In her thesis, Plath explored Dostoyevsky’s illustration of characters’ internal states through the landscapes they inhabit, a strategy she takes up in her novel.

Writing of The Double’s protagonist, Golyadkin, Plath quoted Dostoyevsky, arguing that Golyadkin’s later mental split is foreshadowed in the first scene of the novel, as he wakes up and is unable to separate the “real and actual” from his “confused dreams.” The backdrop of the scene indicates the character’s inner turmoil: Golyadkin’s bedroom is “dirty,” “smoke-stained,” and “dust-covered.” In Plath’s view, Golyadkin’s outer setting points to his muddled psyche.

Plath’s thesis begins its influence on The Bell Jar’s first page, an opening that revises Dostoyevsky’s. Esther Greenwood, the novel’s protagonist, recalls New York City in the morning. By nine o’clock, the dew “evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream.” Remembering the “mirage-grey” streets that “wavered in the sun,” Esther describes “the dry, cindery dust” that clouded her senses. Like Dostoyevsky, Plath recalls the act of dreaming, presenting her protagonist’s surroundings as a hallucination. The Bell Jar’s inaugural scene, like The Double’s, questions its own veracity, reflecting the hazy state of both character and landscape. For the two authors, this uncertainty prefaces their protagonists’ mental breakdowns.

Grateful for this scholarship! The full article is here.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2018