Friday, 19 November 2010

Representations of the Bell Jar

As I mentioned in my last post, the theme of my PhD thesis revolves around the notion of suffocation. That's as much as I'm keen to give away at present.. in case everything goes wrong! What I would like to explore in this blog post is the physical object of a bell jar. Firstly, what does it actually do? How is it represented - what images does it conjure? And for me personally, how does it correspond with suffocation?

The bell jar has long since been an object of interest: both scientifically and artistically, as this 1768 painting by Joseph Wright illustrates. Wright was concerned with painting the scientific advances of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. He departed from the convention of the time by depicting scientific subjects in the manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. The painting below shows us a bird in a bell jar.. whe the air is drawn out, the bird will surely suffocate (side note: I found the expressions of the onlookers fascinating, as if they depict the differing opinions such an experiment would have provoked in 1768).



Wikipedia defines a bell jar as: "a piece of laboratory equipment similar in shape to a bell. It can be manufactured out of a variety of materials, ranging from glass to different types of metals. A bell jar is placed on a base which is vented to a hose fitting, which can be connected via a hose to a vacuum pump. By pumping the air out of the bell jar, a vacuum is formed". In turn, a vacuum is described as "empty space from which all or most air or gas has been removed".

For my study, I do think there is a parallel in descriptions here. Comparatively, to suffocate is described as "kill/be killed by deprivation of oxygen or to feel uncomfortable from lack of air". My PhD is not going to hark back to the Plath criticism of the 1970s, looking for one particular answer to the study of her literary output - but I feel that suffocation has the potential to pose as a foil in which to translate her life and work. I feel there is a corresponence between a bell jar, which creates a vacuum and suffocation - which, from definition illustrates the feelings one would have being placed within a vacuum.

Bell jars are represented in a variety of different ways. There are a good deal of youtube videos documenting classroom science experiments where bells are silenced when the air is pumped out. I feel the following image illustrates the function of a bell jar very well:



In my mind, in terms of the time period in which Plath lived: in general, especially for women, I can visualise the United States enclosed in a bell jar; with different factors (e.g. McCarthyism, the Cold War, resrtictive social rules) on the opposite site, pumping the air out. I read an interesting paper by Steven Gould Axelrod on 'Robert Lowell and the Cold War' a few days ago. It documented Lowell leading a McCarthyist assault on the administrator of the Yaddo Writers' Colony in 1949 (a place where Plath found a great deal of inspiration around a decade later). The motivations behind Lowell getting so involved in this can possibly be attributed to his mania, alcoholism and unclear politics (he swung from left to right to pacifist frequently!) but I feel the sentiment of what occurred at Yaddo can be visualised in the form of the above bell jar image. Politely rigid and oppressive ideology sucking the air our of creativity. Creating an atmosphere which can only have made those in Yaddo feel like silencing themselves, stifling creativity - for fear of going against the grain and being outcast. In the grand scheme of American Literature, these themes are in my mind, inherently puritan: which I feel gives the bell jar as symbol a very important place.

In looking online at other types of use for a bell jar, I was suprised to find that people enjoy using them as decorations in their homes as well as containers to house food. I may be overthinking this, but it is possible to concede that this practical and helpful use of bell jars could represent that something positive can come from being enclosed in a vacuum? Perhaps though, the word vacuum is the wrong one to use. For any kind of creative contribution to come from a vacuum, it can no longer be thought of as "empty space". Or it is the empty space that breeds creativity?



In the case of Sylvia Plath, if we are to generally suppose that yes, she was enclosed in a bell jar and various internal/external suffocations created it so that she inhabited a vacuum state: did this factor into the work that she produced? Had it not been for the vacuum, would she have been able to write the way she had?

Again, these assumptions are quite 2D at present, but it's certainly a point that could be developed!

10 comments:

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Maeve,

I recall that letter Plath wrote to her mother in October 1962 when she comments that her poetry was flowing "as if domesticity had choked me". Or something to that effect. And I wonder how this plays into your approach here. In fact, the answer to your (possibly rhetoric) question "would she have been able to write the way she had?" is quite answerable: no, she probably could not have written those poems under circumstances prior to the lifting of the bell jar after she kicked Hughes out...

pks

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi Peter! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

I do recall that letter you reference; it definitely adds weight to the notion that there were suffocating elements at play and that she was self-aware of them in a time before the advent of feminism or a stronger quest for male/female equality. I thought that letter in particular was very interesting. If only we had the corresponding Journals from that time to get a better insight!

In terms of your second point - "would she have been able to have written the way she had?" - I would be inclined to agree with you but I also don't think that it's the only factor that allowed her to write the way she did. It's a very layered question, the one I am posing, lots more to thik about!

To take you up on a point though: to be honest I have never viewed her seperation with Hughes as a lifting of the bell jar. In fact, I feel, that would have served to increasingly stifle Plath. Her personal self-suffocations i.e. wanting to be a perfect poet, having the perfect family, the perfect husband.. coupled with external suffocations like financial matters, the cold winter, society's cold look on divorcée's (as described so well by Plath in 'Mothers') and of course lonliness, struggling with the children on her own, feeling inferior - I feel these factors created even more of a world where the air is sucked out, for Plath.

In her Letters Home, to her mother, all the to-ings and fro-ings in the final few letters, with Plath deciding to go and live in Ireland, but wait no, London. For Warren to visit sooner, and then later. All these huge decisions being made and re-made with such ferocity to me illustrate panic. I read a veterinarian's definition of 'suffocation' a while ago and it talked of suffocation in horses. When the horse began to feel the stifling take hold, they reacted aggressively, struggling, lunging from corner to corner. I felt that description had a certain resonance with those letters Sylvia wrote to her mother, I just couldn't shake the similarity.

Sorry to ramble on and thanks again for your comment:)

Peter K Steinberg said...

Ramble on!! These are some excellent things to think about. I suppose I never looked immediately beyond the image of the bell jar & suffocation as you have, so I think you're really opening up the way in which we can Plath's use of the thing, literally, metaphorically, etc. And the comparison to that of horses is pariticularly resonant and Plathian given Ariel & her late interest in horse-back riding.

Excellent points on the panic & uncertainty she was experiencing in those months after Hughes left. & for bringing up "Mothers". I had started to write in my initial comment about how I felt her comment to her mother - about being suffocated or choked by domesticity - was at odds because without Hughes there she had more work to do. But I couldn't complete the thought as I was at work.

pks

Morgane said...

I wish I had something wiser to say but this is all very, very interesting Maeve. I really love the way you tried to look at all the different meanings and uses of the Bell Jar. It makes me think about the book and the different interpretations I had of those elements.
The point that caught my attention in particular is when you talk about the possibility of something positive coming from being enclosed in a bell jar. I had never seen that from that angle but I think it's so clever of you to bring it up. I don't pretend to know anything and I've been thinking about this for 3 minutes but maybe the figure of a Bell jar also conveys protection ? Something you actually chose for yourself in order to isolate yourself and protect yourself from the outside world. Obviously, for a human being, it is part of some sort of self-destruction process because there are other ways to do so, other healthier ways to do so (a bell jar is, indeed, also a vacuum, devoid of life) but it's a very radical way and maybe a very efficient way ?

Morgane E.

Jenny said...

Ever since my first reading of The Bell Jar, I've wondered about looking further into how the actual bell jar is represented (in a broader scope) & all of the implications it serves to manifest... Needless to say, this was a very welcome/enjoyable read for me!

Two For Tea said...

I very much appreciate the intellect and insight of your posts! Excited to see what else you discover/express. Thanks for visiting my blog...I'm excited to be your newest follower.

<3 Cambria
http://twoforteaplease.blogspot.com/

The Plath Diaries said...

@Morgane - I think you really are onto something when you talk about protection! And in a way, when Sylvia went to live in Devon and have a simple life, keeping bees, raising a family and writing - that to me shows a desire to isolate from the outside world. To focus on something organic and simple: perhaps reflective of the literature Plath wanted to produce? It's definitely something to think about!

@Jenny - I'm really glad you enjoyed the entry! It's cool looking at the different representations, though I have to admit I thought a bell jar is a strange choice for household decorations! A lot of people seem to have them on their mantlepieces!

@Two for Tea - Thanks so much for stopping by! Looking forward to reading your blog a lot more too! :)

roisin said...

hello maeve... i'm very much enjoying reading your blog and all the interesting topics for conversation that you've been stirring up. As you know, all my education on Plath has come from you, but something both you and Morgane brought up got me thinking about a poem by Shelley, “On Fanny Godwin”(the half sister of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would later become Shelley’s wife—Shelley wrote the poem after Fanny completed suicide in 1816):

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery--O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

The last line is the one has the most resonance when discussing the possible protection offered by the bell jar: “This world is all too wide for thee”. Within this line there is all the implications that the world is too vast, too chaotic, too disorienting… that a certain level of protection from it is needed for self-preservation. You show a lovely image of some gorgeous pastries… as you implied, are they not being protected from the ravages of the air outside the bell jar? (and flies, urgh!)

In terms of the physicality of the bell jar, it would appear there are two locations – within and outwith (forgive me for using an old Scots word ;) ) – if Ester/Plath had the choice, it seems she would wish to be away from inside and beneath the bell jar… but what forces are at work that drive her back inside it? Is it an inability to survive in the ‘world’ beyond it, or can it be explained away by some neurochemical factor, her depression? (bearing in mind that there has been no scientific evidence to suggest that suicide is in ones biological makeup – and that everyone with a mental illness/depression does not go on to attempt or complete suicide)

Perhaps Plath’s inability to achieve equilibrium is worth an exploration… she cannot be without it and yet she cannot be within it…

I hope to discuss this with you further over dinner at Yoko’s in the near future – you can chide me for being totally misguided if you think so! Back to James Clarence Mangan for me… I hope you'll be around to help me articulate some thoughts about this rogue!

roisin said...

hello maeve... i'm very much enjoying reading your blog and all the interesting topics for conversation that you've been stirring up. As you know, all my education on Plath has come from you, but something both you and Morgane brought up got me thinking about a poem by Shelley, “On Fanny Godwin”(the half sister of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would later become Shelley’s wife—Shelley wrote the poem after Fanny completed suicide in 1816):

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery--O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

The last line is the one has the most resonance when discussing the possible protection offered by the bell jar: “This world is all too wide for thee”. Within this line there is all the implications that the world is too vast, too chaotic, too disorienting… that a certain level of protection from it is needed for self-preservation. You show a lovely image of some gorgeous pastries… as you implied, are they not being protected from the ravages of the air outside the bell jar? (and flies, urgh!)

In terms of the physicality of the bell jar, it would appear there are two locations – within and outwith (forgive me for using an old Scots word ;) ) – if Ester/Plath had the choice, it seems she would wish to be away from inside and beneath the bell jar… but what forces are at work that drive her back inside it? Is it an inability to survive in the ‘world’ beyond it, or can it be explained away by some neurochemical factor, her depression? (bearing in mind that there has been no scientific evidence to suggest that suicide is in ones biological makeup – and that everyone with a mental illness/depression does not go on to attempt or complete suicide)

Perhaps Plath’s inability to achieve equilibrium is worth an exploration… she cannot be without it and yet she cannot be within it…

I hope to discuss this with you further over dinner at Yoko’s in the near future – you can chide me for being totally misguided if you think so! Back to James Clarence Mangan for me… I hope you'll be around to help me articulate some thoughts about this rogue!

The Plath Diaries said...

@Roisin - Even though I have long since emailed you privately a more detailled synopsis of your seriously interesting points, I just wanted to thank you for stopping by the blog. You know how much your opinions mean to me - you're the smartest, most insightful person I know. So yes, we shall discuss further and I'm buying the Yoko's this time! Hopefully this week ma cherie! xox