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I am, I am, I am: Reading The Bell Jar from the Psychoanalytic Perspective

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 kind 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/uncover herself employing, what appears to be, Lacanian principles. The novel also penetrates the really Freudian ream of youngster/parent relationships and employs symbolism that both evokes psychological problems and comments on psychoanalysis itself.

Lacan’s stages of improvement lead up to the improvement of the structural possibility of the “I.” Esther Greenwood, the novel’s protagonist, is locked in that quite struggle. Lacan theorized that the infant starts out not realizing that he/she is separate from the mother and that in order to understand his/her individuality, the infant should separate from the mother. This traumatic act creates both a feeling of loss and the want to recapture that sense of wholeness that he/she seasoned just before the psychic break. This is achieved by discovering what the “self” is now that the existence of the “other” has been established. The “mirror stage” includes the recognition of a misrepresentation as the “self”—the image of oneself that is observed 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 individual that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your genuine father, and the person you thought was your father all your life is a sham.

Of course, the particular person “hanging around” the door is the self that Esther has but to learn. 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 quantity of “mirrors” in which she sees herself reflected in. She comes to New York and her guest editorship with a number of (warped) mirrors currently in spot. There is the classic academic image of herself, reflected by the ladies professors at her college, and the effective novel writer in the mirror held by her benefactor, Philomenia Guinea. All of these ladies, according to Esther, wanted to “adopt [her] in some way, and…have [her] resemble them (180). In New York, Esther is faced with the higher specialist mirrored standard of the fashion magazine editor, Jay Cee, and goes so far as to think about herself as “Ee Gee, the popular editor” (32). Additionally, there are the contrasting selves reflected in the type and sweet mirror of Betsy, a fellow guest editor from Kansas, and the cynical, carefree reflection provided 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 several mirrors only serve to additional distance Esther from the recognition of her “I.” In the finish, she rejects and breaks all of these mirrors in the act of throwing her new garments, which symbolize the various “selves” she’s collected, off of the roof of her hotel on the final night of her stay.

With no a single mirror in spot, Esther fully begins to participate in her psychic breakdown. Primarily, she is “self”-less. Lacan felt that the inability to say “I,” to be selfless in a way that does not let a single 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 property, to suffocate beneath 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 happens in the type of Joan Gilling. She is Esther’s mirror image in a number of ways—they attended the same college, dated the very same boy and Joan had even attempted to kill herself soon after reading about Esther’s attempted suicide. In hunting to Joan to be her new “double,” Esther rejects the image(s) of herself that she held before. When the females on the ward find a image of Esther in the new problem of the fashion magazine she had spent the summer time editing, she denies getting the subject of the photograph—“No, it is not me…it’s somebody else” (170). Incidentally, she describes the scene in the image twice in the novel, initial, when it was really taking place and then once more 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 appears empty and depressing.

When Joan is admitted to the very same hospital as Esther, the chance for her to act as Esther’s definitive double is realized. Joan progresses rapidly by means of the “progressive” levels of the hospital, succeeding considerably in the exact same way that Esther had when in college. She sees Joan as “the beaming double of my old greatest self, specially developed to stick to and torment me” (167).

Sooner or later Esther starts to make a break from the mirror image of Joan. She sees her as a adverse image of herself, “a wry, black image,” that should be rejected (179). In order to be cured, one need to enter the Symbolic realm of Lacanian theory exactly where one realizes the structural possibility of the “I” and recognizes the notion of the Other. For this to take place, one particular need to recognize that the other is not the “I.” The impetus for this break is Esther’s discovery that Joan is a lesbian. By creating Joan lesbian, the text suggests that she does not get past the mirror stage. Rather than searching for out the other (sex) in romance, Joan stays within the realm of her personal image—another woman. The adverse consequence of not passing by way of this stage is symbolically represented by Joan’s suicide. Joan’s death also plays an crucial function for Esther. With her mirror image destroyed her heart now beats, “I am, I am, I am” (199). She is ultimately productive in discovering her self she is cured.

The relationship between Esther and her mother exemplifies some themes of Freud’s function. Esther’s father dies early in her life, a loss that is accompanied by the total 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 observed as a constructive step as Esther’s psychiatrist smiles “at [her] as if something had pleased her really, very much” when Esther admits that she hates her mother in therapy (166). Freud would see this as a progression from one particular stage of improvement to yet another. In an attempt to align herself with her father, and against her mother, she tries to get back to him in a quantity of techniques. She lies to a subway conductor, saying that her father is in prison and that she is searching for a way to get there. She goes to his grave with the intention of creating up for years of neglect and to “take on a mourning my mother by no means bothered with” (135). Her attempted suicide can be noticed as a final try 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 ultimately cured.

Throughout the novel, Plath uses symbolism that each evokes psychological problems and comments on psychoanalysis itself. Lacan says that language is usually about loss or absence words are not necessary when you have what you want. Esther’s need to turn out to be an author, to have a profession that is focused on language, can be noticed 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 type of talk leaves Esther cold (183). Esther hated the shrinking of concepts into symbols, as in her chemistry class, exactly where “perfectly great words like gold and silver…were shrunk into ugly abbreviations (29). Freud’s shrinking of elements of the human mind into such symbolic components 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 offers an further gauge with which Esther’s progress can be measured. Her remedy is inevitable in the context of Lacanian theory whilst her early attempts to uncover her “self” and the fate of Joan Gilling demonstrate the consequences of failing to resolve the conflicts of each phase.

Works Cited

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