10 January 2017

Did you know... Sylvia Plath's Slow Insects and African Pygmies

It has been quite some time since a "Sylvia Plath: Did you know…" appeared on this blog so I thought I should remedy this unintended gap.

Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar (1963) is a fun book to read for its hidden messages and allusions. Plath carefully and consciously manipulated time and people to construct a work based off of many experiences in her own life, but undoubtedly also added fictional color.

One scene in the novel in particular that always makes me chuckle is Esther's motivation for wanting to spend her summer writing a novel. She writes:
Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel.
That would fix a lot of people. (1963:126)
After this, Esther drafts a first paragraph,
Elaine sat on the breezeway in an old yellow nightgown of her mother's waiting for something to happen. It was a sweltering morning in July, and drops of sweat crawled down her back one by one, like slow insects.

I leaned back and read what I had written.

It seemed lively enough, and I was quite proud of the bit about the drops of sweat like insects, only I had the dim impression I'd probably read it somewhere else a long time ago. (127)
Did you know... Plath certainly had read this before; and chances are many of you have as well! For the longest time I had looked for this in something Plath wrote, thinking: she must be referring to something she herself wrote. Well, she was! Plath wrote in her January 1955 short story "Tongues of Stone" the following: "Mrs Sneider was the only other one in the sunroom where the girl sat on the sofa with tears crawling like slow insects down her cheeks…" (JPBD 267). Of course, Plath changes the "tears" in the story to "sweat" in the novel, but this is what Sylvia Plath's writing shows us: that through sweat, tears, and through blood, a marvelous, interconnected body of work is created.

Not satisfied with her productivity, Esther states,
I needed experience.

How could I write about life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing? (1963: 128)
In my background work for the forthcoming The Letters of Sylvia Plath, I spent a lot of time browsing and reading 1940s and early 1950s issues of Mademoiselle. Imagine how taken aback I was to read a story called "The Hill People" by Elizabeth Marshall (Radcliffe, 1953) published in Mademoiselle August 1952 ... right next to... "Sunday at the Mintons'" by a certain Sylvia Plath! Marshall's story appeared on pages 254, 363-371; Plath's on 255, 371-378.

A biographical sketch for Marshall reads:
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, daughter of Lorna and Laurence Marshall, was born in 1931. She attended Smith College, but interrupted her studies to go to Africa when her father, former co-founder of Raytheon Corporation, retired and decided he wanted to get reacquainted with his family. In 1951, she traveled with her family to what is now Namibia, and the Marshalls undertook ethnographic research on the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert. (source)
"The Hill People"... In 2004, Harvard held an exhibition called Regarding the Kalahari on the Marshall Family and the Ju/'hoansi !Kung, 1950-1961. "The Hill People" was also published in a spring 1952 issue of the Harvard Advocate and later appeared in The Best Short Stories of 1953 (1954). (See also, Journal of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 1955: A Finding Aid, held by Peabody Museum Archives, Harvard University.)

Are there any instances like these in The Bell Jar that you wonder about?

Another aspect of The Bell Jar that has always struck me is how uneven the novel is. And what I mean by that is its structure. The first thirteen chapters deal with Esther Greenwood's history, if you will: the reasons, people, and experiences that lead her to the brink of self-destruction in her suicide attempt. And yet there are just seven chapters dealing with the aftermath of this. The writing in Chapters 14 through 20 is fragmented, representing the chaos and confusion of waking up alive and being shuttled to several different hospitals. It feels as though there are more short paragraphs… vignettes... which parallels the process the re-construction she underwent while recovering in the three hospitals ("patched, retreaded and approved for the road" (257)). Things get a little more… stable or prosy, if you will, when Esther reaches Caplan/Belsize.

Plath first explored the experience of recovery in her short story "Tongues of Stone" mentioned above. "Tongues of Stone" was completed by 28 January 1955, according to her pocket calendar held by the Lilly Library at Indiana University. In the calendar Plath noted that she "rewrote" the story providing it "with new ending" and indicating that she was sending it to a short story contest at Mademoiselle. This came twenty days after her poem "Morning in the Hospital Solarium" (8 January 1955) and eighteen months before she wrote "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper" between 23 and 26 June 1956, a week after she married Ted Hughes. In Plath's Collected Poems Hughes writes "(She was writing "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper" on a parapet over the Seine on 21 June 1956.)". However, this would have been difficult considering the newlyweds were still in England on that date according to her passport. The first poem is less definitely about her hospitalization but perhaps some of the imagery is from her time at McLean. "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper" is more directly about her experiences there, though in the novel Miss Drake's named was changed to Miss Norris.

Because The Bell Jar is so "short" on the back side and because so much is "missing" in terms of details about her recovery, "Tongues of Stone" can be instructive in filling in the gaps of time and memory. In his wonderful Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study (2010), Luke Ferretter writes that Plath "first wrote ["Tongues of Stone"] in autumn 1954 for Alfred Kazin" (60). Plath had been invited after the Fall term started to join Kazin's first semester only course (English 347a Short Story Writing) after meeting and interviewing the professor as an assignment for an article she wrote "The Neilson Professor". The piece was published in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 1954.

The day after she finished "Tongues of Stone", 29 January 1955, Plath wrote to her mother about the experience of doing so at Kazin's suggestion in a letter to his budding writer-student. (The letter from Kazin to Plath may not be extant.) Ferretter excellently summarizes Plath's story, both the first draft and its January 1955 revision:
In the story as Plath rewrote it, the heroine, in hospital after a suicide attempt, has managed to secrete two large pieces of broken glass in her shoes, with which she is going to try to kill herself again. That night, however, she has a positive reaction to her insulin treatment and feels better, for the first time since her suicide attempt. The story ends, as Plath wrote to her mother, with dawn instead of night. Lying in the dark, hearing the 'voice of dawn', the heroine feels the 'everlasting rising of the sun' in her (JPBD 275). Clearly, the earlier version of the story ended either with the heroin's having acquired or ha shards of glass. The story, as Kazin said, had no joy. (60)
Set in October, "Tongues of Stone" starts with a girl sitting on a sofa in a sunroom knitting. The main character has lost track of time, a result of insomnia. This is a new detail; a continuation if you will, from how it went down in The Bell Jar. Both the patient in the story and Esther in the novel experience crippling insomnia during the summer before the breakdown. However, in the novel it is related that during recovery Esther had been sleeping in hospital. The nameless girl in the story has given up hope, and in language lifted almost verbatim for The Bell Jar, the speaker thinks, "After a while the would get tired of waiting and hoping and telling her that there was a God or that some day she would look back on this as if it were a bad dream" (JPBD 268).

We are provided in the short story with actions of the patient that are absent from the novel. Going out with a book to sit in the sun and storing apples picked from the orchard under a pillow so that she could eat them in the bathroom, to name two. This is not to say that these are things Plath did; however, they just may be based off her own experiences or those around her. The details, too, of the girls insulin treatment add to the scenes in The Bell Jar, too. Such as the giving of orange juice to "terminate the treatment" being consumed right before dinner (JPBD 270). The Debby character in the story is probably Joan Gilling from the novel.

Late in the story, the patient recalls some details from immediately after "her second birth" (JPBD 272). This again complements scenes from the novel such as the nurse suggesting Esther will meet and marry "a nice blind man" someday (JPBD  272; The Bell Jar 181). Additionally, there are other details such as the patient still feeling quite suicidal well into her confinement at the hospital. She tries to hang herself with a scarf and contemplates harming herself with shards of broken glass as Ferretter mentions above.

In all, "Tongues of Stone" and "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper" are highly corresponding pieces to writing in The Bell Jar. The earlier work show Plath trying to process her recent experiences. Absent from these are a fuller narrative and plot such as the back stories including boys, college, the guest editorship, etc: the "reasons" that offer some explanation for Esther Greenwood's breakdown and suicide attempt. As her chapter outline for The Bell Jar shows, Plath was able, with time, to fully incorporate and realize (and perhaps purge) the momentous, formative events that she experienced in the early 1950s.

All links accessed 23 February 2015, 10 June 2016, and 5 January 2017.


Rehan Qayoom said...

You should publish an annotated edition of The Bell Jar.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

THANK YOU, Peter. This is very helpful!

Happy New Year to you and all of my fellow Plathies!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for your comment and suggestion, Rehan. A website called Book Drum did something like this for The Bell Jarback in 2010. In early 2011, it (and more) was the subject of a blog post here called The Bell Jar, Annotated. But I agree this kind of documentary and historical annotating for a work as brilliant as The Bell Jar should be encouraged.


Peter K Steinberg said...

YOU'RE WELCOME, Julia. I am glad that this is helpful.

New Year's regards back at ya...


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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.