21 July 2009

Sylvia Plath's sources

The Bell Jar, often considered depressing by those compelled to see Plath's own end and that of the novel as one and the same, contains in its very first chapter, an indication that everything would be alright for Esther Greenwood. At her internship at Ladies Day magazine, she and the other girls were given presents, which they considered "as good as free advertising." (4) These presents - a reminder of a stressful and dark time - were tucked away for a while. "But later, when I was alright again," Esther says, "I brought them out...and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." (4) This statement, perhaps more so than the cliff-hanger ending of the novel, guarantee's a 'happy ending' to The Bell Jar.

The source of a river or lake is the point origination of the water's flow. For Sylvia Plath, a source for much of her creative writing was her journals. Sylvia Plath's Journals, published in full in 2000, act both as diary and notebook, where experiences in Plath's life are captured for two purposes: to record and to recall. A third purpose, to practice, has elements of the first two, I think. The recall aspect of her Journals helps to define it as a writer's notebook and a source for inspiration. The quote above from The Bell Jar has its source from Plath's examination and description of "Mr. and Mrs. Ted Hughes' Writing Table" from Benidorm, Spain, August 17, 1956: "... and a white plastic sunglasses case sewn over with a decorative strewing of tiny white and figured shells, a few green and pink sequins, a plastic green starfish and rounded, gleaming oval shell." (page 259)

Plath's Journals are bursting with these kinds of details - real life jottings that somehow found their way into poems, stories, articles, and her novel - and many more ideas that unfortunately never came to fruition. One can find in Plath's Journals the source for her story "Den of Lions", her poem "Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers", as well as cross-overs, scenes that appear in multiple creations. Even in her earliest journal entries from 1950 and 1951 (most of which are undated) there are the seeds of a couple of her most famous poems: "The Applicant" and "Lady Lazarus". The image of a bell jar itself appears on page 118, from July 11, 1952, shortly before she began employment for the Cantor's in Chatham, Mass.

There is much to be gained by a close reading of Plath's Journals (and Letters Home, for that matter) and a comparison to her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. To a certain degree, it is a way to untangle the life from the myth, and vice versa. That is, if one were inclined to want to untangle...

The above quotes from The Bell Jar are from the Harper & Row edition, 1971.

2 comments :

Laurie said...

Peter~

Great read!
It has been a long while since I've read her Journals and am inspired to scour them again.

It's always struck me that Sylvia never seemed to be able to turn-off being a writer. I don't know if that is a negative thing, but it would (if true) filter life's experiences as both a spectator and participant. We all do that to some extent, but for her I think it must have been exaggerated.

cheers,
Laurie

Jenny Lerew said...

Fantastic entry to read, insightful and important.

Though so often referred to I think Plath's journals are almost overlooked in recent years(even with the hoo-ha over the publication of the unedited volume far too much attention was paid to what Hughes relationship gossip might be in it), and what a waste of treasure. As you point out as a reference and source for her other work they're invaluable, and moreover just make fascinating reading. If she'd been much less known than she was they'd still be worthwhile--though we'd never have seen them.

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