Madness in Novels The Bell Jar and Surfacing

Categories: Novel

In Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' and Margaret Atwood's 'Surfacing', the concept of madness is an essential component for the exploration of the novels main characters. However, the two protagonists are shown to be affected, and react, in very different ways, making a considerable difference to the ways these two characters are dealt with. On the one hand there is Plath's Esther, who is shown to be a source of interest to the public, as shown by the articles Joan shows her.

Yet the unnamed narrator of 'Surfacing' feels alienated by her friends, who don't understand her at all, and she is left alone to deal with her state of mind. The two novels go very far in their exploration of mental instability, yet the extent of both characters illnesses is debatable; is Esther really ill, or does she feel she needs to suffer in order to gain recognition? In addition to this, the character in Surfacing loses grip on her sanity only momentarily, so how far can it be described as madness?

It could just as easily be interpreted as an exploration of herself, a reaction to either her father's death, or the return to her childhood home.

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The most integral part of both novels is how both protagonists see themselves, their lack of responsibility for themselves, as well as their interpretation of other characters. The notion of superiority and gods plays a significant part in both novels, for as Atwood depicts her character as creating gods and boundaries, Esther is shown to be much more flippant with her mortality, taking it as her own, even going so far as to attempt suicide.

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As a means of responding to her psychological issues, Esther repeatedly experiments with different methods of suicide; hanging- "That morning I had tried to hang myself. ", drowning- "I thought I would swim out until I was too tired to swim back. ", overdose- "I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly" and slashing her wrists- "I had locked myself in the bathroom, and run a tub full of warm water, and taken out a Gillette blade. ", though admittedly the majority of these attempts come across as half-hearted.

The variation in her choices implies she is simply testing the water, to see where her limits lie, and that she is not altogether serious in her endeavours. Yet on the other hand, the range of methods could suggest an attempt by Esther to make the right choice, a theme that can be seen throughout the novel, represented by the fig tree. This is strengthened by the fact that Esther does not even attempt to kill herself with a gun, for she feels "the risks of a gun seemed great. " Is she commenting on the chances she might not kill herself properly with it, or is it more the fact she could become horribly disabled or disfigured?

Looking at Esther's calm, and somewhat impressed reaction to her repulsive appearance after her overdose, it seems much more likely that it is the former. Not only that, but shortly after stating that "drowning must be the kindest way to die", she attempts to drown herself, showing, in contrast to her opinions of suicide with a gun, her preference to calmer, more romantic methods of suicide. By choosing to kill herself, Esther is, in a way, playing God- a stark contrast to the protagonist of 'Surfacing', who instead creates gods.

The gods she creates are closely linked with "the power" she so often mentions, which she actively seeks. 'The power' is sometimes shown in herself, yet on the other hand it is also often depicted to be beings over which she has no control, which could indicate the protagonists disorder in her life; she appears to have no goals, she doesn't conform to society, which compels her to observe "being socially retarded is like being mentally retarded, it arouses in others disgust and pity and the desire to torment and reform.

" Her use of comparison to mental backwardness is significant in that she uses language to display her feelings of powerlessness throughout the novel, as she often finds herself with an inability to use language appropriately. When talking to David, she finds she "had to concentrate in order to talk to him, the English words seemed imported, foreign; it was like trying to listen to two separate conversations, each interrupting the other. " In Chapter 4 she refers to some beans that she used to believe "if I could get some of them and keep them for myself I would be all powerful".

This shows how the narrator viewed herself as a person without power, reflecting her isolation during her youth, and her reaction to the unsuitable religious and gender roles pressed upon her. These factors also contribute to her deciding that when she has a child, she "will never teach it any words. " an indication that she believes the sophistication of others who have mastered language and society have "turned [them] against their gods". When the narrator does show that her actions are controlled by 'gods', she describes them "demanding, absolute, they want all. "

Mirroring her early depictions of her peers as "a machine... takes a little of you at a time, it leaves the shell. " Her gods command her every move, insisting "the food in the cabin is forbidden" and "I'm not allowed to go back in that cage, wooden rectangle. " These rules seem to prohibit anything in connection with her life back out of Quebec, as she rejects that life as she feels she is rejected from that society. Although the rules of the 'gods' are in fact put in place by the character herself, it could still be argued that as she believes she is in the control of others, as she is inadvertently taking control, unlike Esther who consistently designs her own way through her obstacles.

As a result of this, the two protagonists of the novels appear to perceive their importance as individuals very differently; again this shows how one character takes her life into her own hands, whereas the other feels a lack of security in who she is. The narrator in Surfacing finds she is unable to connect with her peers to the point where she regresses to a state of animalistic behaviour, whereas Esther repeatedly sees herself as above other people, throughout her illness. An example of this would be her spell in Belsize, where she strikes up a relationship with her doctor, Doctor Nolan, in who she appears to trust.

However, despite the fact she herself is deceptive, and doesn't mind lying, she is appalled when she feels Dr Nolan has betrayed her, which she describes as "bare faced treachery", when she discovers she is to have ECT. She goes as far as to comment "I liked Dr Nolan, I loved her, I had given her my trust on a platter and told her everything", yet she had earlier taken a packet of the Doctors matches, and decided that if she asked for them back, she would "say I'd thought they were made of candy and had eaten them.

" This shows how Esther views herself as above her own standards; the rules she imposes on others don't apply to her, and mirrors how she disassociates herself from everyone else. Her entire concept of living in a bell jar is one of the focal points of the novel, and is wholly linked with her illness, for she uses the metaphor of existence in a bell jar to illustrate her state of mind, while at the same time providing a clear message of how she feels separated from society.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Surfacing's unnamed protagonist, who from the beginning portrays her feelings of detachment from her peers- "either the three of them are in the wrong place, or I am. " Although she doesn't hold her peers in particularly high regard, she does not see them as her equals, as shown by her referring to David as "an imposter, a pastiche, layers of political handbills" with distain, viewing him as indecisive and fake. Not only this but Anna's obsession with make-up, and her fear of being seen without it is a stark contrast to the narrators reversal to her basic form.

The 'madness' of both characters is most simply depicted through their feelings of confinement, for the two of them both seem to be separated from the social order of their group. Firstly, Plath's novel is permeated by a feeling of imprisonment, in particular represented as the bell jar that forms the title of the book. The bell jar itself represents Esther's suffocation, for the jar is supposed to preserve its ornamental content but instead traps them in stale air. In one instance, Esther sees herself as "sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose".

She doesn't believe she excels at anything in particular, which makes it difficult for her to make a decision, clearly depicted by the scene in Jay Cee's office where all the girls are to "be photographed with props to show what [they] wanted to be. " In this, Esther see's how "Betsy held an ear of corn to show she wanted to be a farmer's wife, and Hilda held the bald faceless head of a hatmaker's dummy to show how she wanted to design hats, and Doreen held a gold embroidered sari to show she wanted to be a social worker in India.

" Esther's indecision over her future is shown when she retells "When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn't know. " The contrast between Esther and her peers illustrates how she feels disassociated from them, the disappoint from this is one contribution to her decent into madness, as shown by her reaction to not making a Harvard writing course- "All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.

" This quote mirrors Esther's journey, and the 'body' quite clearly represents herself as hurtling into the unknown without direction. Even the place where Esther is found after her suicide attempt represents a sense of confinement, as Esther is literally holed up in her basement, "crouched at the mouth of the darkness, like a troll" illustrating how she views herself not as a talented young woman with her whole life in front of her, but as a hermit, doomed to live alone and repulsive.

However, this proves to be the only instance where Esther is physically trapped, the other instances in which this theme appears are allegorical, signifying that her sense of confinement is largely mental, and Plath plays on this repeatedly throughout the novel to depict her characters madness. Atwood, on the other hand, shows confinement to be more of a separation from the rest of community than confinement.

Right from the beginning, the narrator is revealed to be an English speaker in Quebec, which at the time which the novel was set, was aspiring to become an independent French-speaking nation. "My family was, by reputation, peculiar as well as anglais" shows how the narrator regards that to be English is on par with being peculiar, and therefore sets her apart from the rest of the community. She narrates a scene in a shop where she tries to buy hamburgers, and finds herself mocked by the locals- "Avez-vous du viande hiche?

I ask her, blushing because of my accent" clearly shows how uncomfortable she is in the situation, and it imitates later passages in the novel where she feels her language lets her down- "Again the strangling feeling, paralysis of the throat". This whole theme demonstrates how the narrator feels no place anywhere, and a reason why she reverts to animalistic behaviour, for in her mind, it simplifies everything. She states that "the trouble that some people have being German, I thought, I have being human.

The narrator is shown to be so disconnected from her peers throughout the novel, that she repeatedly equates human interaction with that of animals. A clear example of this is when she overhears David and Anna having sex in the next room, and compares the final noise to be "not a word but pure pain, clear as water, an animal's at the moment where the trap closes. " The protagonist herself does not associate sex with the same pleasure that her peers do, describing pleasure itself as "redundant, the animals don't have pleasure.

" -another instance of where she likens herself to animals instead of conforming to the behaviour which she feels is expected of her. The madness portrayed in both novels could be argued, for instance in 'The Bell Jar' it is sometimes suggestive that Esther considers herself to be unbalanced because she feels it is an accepted situation for a young woman, particularly one as talented and sensitive as herself, to go through. This is particularly amplified by the fact she attends the same hospital as her patron did when she suffered a breakdown. *quote*.

However, this has two sides, for the novel is famously semi-autobiographical, and Sylvia Plath herself was depressed, eventually killing herself, therefore the descriptions of how Esther feels during her breakdown are first-hand from Plath herself. In turn, looking at 'Surfacing' the main character seeks no attention for herself; in fact she hides from her friends, not completely because she considers them 'bad'. Yet her spell of insanity lasts only for a few days, and when it is over she seems to revert completely to her old self, with no recovery period.

Therefore it could be argued that the narrator wasn't in fact mad, but was simply reacting to the stress she felt from the rest of the group, coupled with the discovery of her father's body. Another factor to this is the reliability of the narrators, for Esther is precise in her narrative; she is able to recollect her entire drama coherently, integrating passages of past experiences fluently. The memories she brings up are relevant, and are all remembered in the same tone, whereas the protagonist in 'Surfacing'

For both novels, madness is a central theme which defines both the direction and tone of the novels. In Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar', madness is illustrated most strongly through Esther's perception of herself- she seems to create an idea of what she is so easily, yet simultaneously struggling with choosing a future for herself. The simple fact that Esther is a young woman with very little life experience means that the novel develops into an alternate coming of age story, which simply heightens the expectation that it is likely to contain angst and personal complications.

In contrast to this, 'Surfacing' is introduced as a search for a missing father; the initial focus is not on the protagonists state of mind, more the relationship between her and Joe, and her memories of home. Therefore the issue of madness is conveyed as more deviant than it is depicted in Esther's situation. However, whereas 'Surfacing' provides a more substantial meaning for the mental deterioration of its main character in her father's death, in 'The Bell Jar' there seems little reason for Esther's depression.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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Madness in Novels The Bell Jar and Surfacing. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Madness in Novels The Bell Jar and Surfacing essay
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