I Am, I Am, I Am: Reading The Bell Jar from The Psychoanalytic Perspective

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Words: 1579 |

Pages: 3.5|

8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1579|Pages: 3.5|8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

A psychoanalytic reading of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar presents a wealth of analyzable material. This novel immediately came to mind as an example of Lacan's theory of the "mirror stage." Plath constructed this novel about a young woman's inability to form an identity separate from the false ones reflected back to her, her consequent psychic breakdown and her use of doubles or "mirror images" to recover/discover herself using, what seems to be, Lacanian principles. The novel also penetrates the very Freudian ream of child/parent relationships and employs symbolism that both evokes psychological issues and comments on psychoanalysis itself.

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Lacan's stages of development lead up to the development of the structural possibility of the "I." Esther Greenwood, the novel's protagonist, is locked in that very struggle. Lacan theorized that the infant starts out not realizing that he/she is separate from the mother and that in order to realize his/her individuality, the infant must separate from the mother. This traumatic act creates both a feeling of loss and the need to recapture that sense of wholeness that he/she experienced before the psychic break. This is accomplished by discovering what the "self" is now that the existence of the "other" has been established. The "mirror stage" involves the recognition of a misrepresentation as the "self"---the image of oneself that is seen in the mirror mistakenly as an "other." This false self evolves into the "ideal ego" and becomes what the individual strives to recover. Plath captures the essence of the "mirror image" in the following passage.

...I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that's been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father, and the person you thought was your father all your life is a sham.

Of course, the person "hanging around" the door is the self that Esther has yet to discover. The false self, the sham, is the image of her self that she thought was her own, the "ideal ego" that continually evades her.

The beginning of the novel finds Esther actively trying to identify what her "ideal ego" is. Her difficulty lies in the number of "mirrors" in which she sees herself reflected in. She comes to New York and her guest editorship with a number of (warped) mirrors already in place. There is the traditional academic image of herself, reflected by the women professors at her college, and the successful novel writer in the mirror held by her benefactor, Philomenia Guinea. All of these women, according to Esther, wanted to "adopt [her] in some way, and...have [her] resemble them (180). In New York, Esther is faced with the high professional mirrored standard of the fashion magazine editor, Jay Cee, and goes so far as to imagine herself as "Ee Gee, the famous editor" (32). Additionally, there are the contrasting selves reflected in the kind and sweet mirror of Betsy, a fellow guest editor from Kansas, and the cynical, carefree reflection offered by Doreen. Her conflict with these two contrasting roles is exhibited as indecision as to with whom her loyalties lie---although Doreen possesses "a secret voice speaking straight out of [Esther's] bones" (6), Esther later decides that it is Betsy she "resembled at heart" (19). These many mirrors only serve to further distance Esther from the recognition of her "I." In the end, she rejects and breaks all of these mirrors in the act of throwing her new clothes, which symbolize the different "selves" she's collected, off of the roof of her hotel on the last night of her stay.

Without a single mirror in place, Esther fully begins to participate in her psychic breakdown. Essentially, she is "self"-less. Lacan felt that the inability to say "I," to be selfless in a way that does not allow one to become the speaking subject of a sentence, leads to instability and a distancing of oneself from the center of the Symbolic, a phase that is akin to Freud's Genital stage and full adulthood. Accordingly, Esther moves back into her Mother's home, to suffocate under the "motherly breath of the suburbs" (60). By the end of the summer she is placed in a psychiatric hospital following her attempted suicide.

It is in the hospital that the re-emergence of the "mirror image" or double occurs in the form of Joan Gilling. She is Esther's mirror image in a number of ways---they attended the same college, dated the same boy and Joan had even tried to kill herself after reading about Esther's attempted suicide. In looking to Joan to be her new "double," Esther rejects the image(s) of herself that she held before. When the women on the ward find a picture of Esther in the new issue of the fashion magazine she had spent the summer editing, she denies being the subject of the photograph---"No, it's not's somebody else" (170). Incidentally, she describes the scene in the picture twice in the novel, first, when it was actually taking place and then again from inside the hospital. These descriptions serve as a distorted mirror image of the event---rather than glamorous, as it seemed at the time, it now seems empty and depressing.

When Joan is admitted to the same hospital as Esther, the opportunity for her to act as Esther's definitive double is realized. Joan progresses rapidly through the "progressive" levels of the hospital, succeeding much in the same way that Esther had once in college. She sees Joan as "the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me" (167).

Eventually Esther begins to make a break from the mirror image of Joan. She sees her as a negative image of herself, "a wry, black image," that must be rejected (179). In order to be cured, one must enter the Symbolic realm of Lacanian theory where one realizes the structural possibility of the "I" and recognizes the concept of the Other. For this to happen, one must recognize that the other is not the "I." The impetus for this break is Esther's discovery that Joan is a lesbian. By making Joan lesbian, the text suggests that she does not get past the mirror stage. Rather than seeking out the other (sex) in romance, Joan stays within the realm of her own image---another woman. The negative consequence of not passing through this stage is symbolically represented by Joan's suicide. Joan's death also plays an important role for Esther. With her mirror image destroyed her heart now beats, "I am, I am, I am" (199). She is finally successful in discovering her self; she is cured.

The relationship between Esther and her mother exemplifies some themes of Freud's work. Esther's father dies early in her life, a loss that is accompanied by the complete lack of mourning by her mother. She blames her mother for the lack of a father, as he is not even present as an object of mourning, and grows to hate her. This is seen as a positive step as Esther's psychiatrist smiles "at [her] as if something had pleased her very, very much" when Esther admits that she hates her mother in therapy (166). Freud would see this as a progression from one stage of development to another. In an attempt to align herself with her father, and against her mother, she tries to get back to him in a number of ways. She lies to a subway conductor, saying that her father is in prison and that she is looking for a way to get there. She goes to his grave with the intention of making up for years of neglect and to "take on a mourning my mother never bothered with" (135). Her attempted suicide can be seen as a final attempt to join her father. Without her mother in her life (as Esther's mother fades from the narrative as Esther is admitted in the hospital) she continues to get well and is eventually cured.

Throughout the novel, Plath uses symbolism that both evokes psychological issues and comments on psychoanalysis itself. Lacan says that language is always about loss or absence; words are not needed when you have what you need. Esther's desire to become an author, to have a career that is focused on language, can be seen as an attempt to deal with the loss in her life, specifically that of her father. A critique of Freud is also evident in the novel. While Joan is enthusiastic about her discussion of "Egos and Ids" with her psychiatrist, this kind of talk leaves Esther cold (183). Esther hated the shrinking of concepts into symbols, as in her chemistry class, where "perfectly good words like gold and silver...were shrunk into ugly abbreviations (29). Freud's shrinking of elements of the human mind into such symbolic elements as the ego and the id is equally distasteful to her. Plath demonstrates the eventual failure of psychoanalysis in having Joan take her own life.

The application of Lacan's theories to the text provides an additional gauge with which Esther's progress can be measured. Her cure is inevitable in the context of Lacanian theory while her early attempts to discover her "self" and the fate of Joan Gilling demonstrate the consequences of failing to resolve the conflicts of each phase.

Works Cited

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Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

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I Am, I Am, I Am: Reading the Bell Jar from the Psychoanalytic Perspective. (2018, Jun 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from
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