In this guest-blog post, Taylor Sykes critiques and contextualises Sylvia Plath's short story 'Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams'. Sykes assesses Plath's fiction-writing prowess and believes this story is a success - despite previous criticisms. Closing her blog, Sykes asks us to consider which reality really is "sane": asking larger questions of the Plath oeuvre, in general.
Sylvia Plath’s poetry was her masterpiece, and her prose, the art she never fully discovered. In the introduction to her posthumously published collection of short stories, journals and essays, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Ted Hughes suggests that Plath’s fatal flaw was that she could never transcend her reality. I do not believe transcendence was her issue-- had she embraced her talent as a semi-autobiographical prose writer, she may have produced more works like the acclaimed Bell Jar. In fact, there are several works in her short story collection that mirror her writing in the novel, especially the title story, where she combines her life as a writer and a patient (as well as receptionist) at a mental institution to create a surreal portrait of a woman worshipping a nightmarish god. Questioning reality itself, the story, while not as widely read or published as Ariel or The Bell Jar, is arguably one of her most powerful works.
The narrator of this story is a “secretary to none other than Johnny Panic himself.” Johnny Panic is the “great Dream Maker” who runs the world by instilling panic in the minds of his disciples. By day she works as a secretary at a hospital clinic where her job is to record the dreams of the clinic’s patients. However, her passion-- no, obsession-- is to memorize these dreams and to inscribe them into Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams when she comes home at night. She refers to herself as a “dream connoisseur,” and in that way she sets herself apart from the medicine prescribers in her clinic. The doctors want to cure patients, make them stop worshipping Johnny Panic in their daily lives and nightly dreams; our narrator, on the other hand, wants to “counteract” modern medicine. Thus, Plath critiques medicinal “cures” that rid patients of their nightmares and by extension, their passion.
Plath’s writing is at its most glorious when she mixes real life events with her mental instability. Johnny Panic is the god that Plath worshipped most of her life. In a BBC interview, she spoke of her “disillusionment” that she experienced as early as age nine. Through her writing she was able to embrace this darker side of her mind that she hid from her daily life as a student, housewife, mother and hostess. She fancied herself “Lady Lazarus,” and in her famous poem of the same title she writes, “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you can say I’ve a call.” Yes, death did call to her like writing, and it is the dark side of her mind that crept into her poems, into The Bell Jar, and in “Johnny Panic”, we can surmise that this is pure Plath speaking through the mouth of the narrator.
The reader can find Plath at the bottom of the lake. Imagine her sitting cross-legged at the deepest point, all the murky water and dreams flowing in bubbles from her silent howl. There she found solace, like Nietzsche. The narrator describes how “the people who have really gone floating down toward the bottom of that boggy lake come in only once, and are then referred to a place more permanent... Even those people who are barely about to walk about the streets and keep working, who aren’t even yet halfway down the lake, get sent to the Out-Patient Department at another hospital specializing in more severe cases.” These patients who are transferred are the real worshippers of Johnny Panic. That is, until the doctors rid the patients of their demons and their god. Plath is one of those severer cases, in reference to her stay at McLean Hospital after the poorly administered electroconvulsive therapy (also mentioned toward the end of The Bell Jar) and the overdose of sleeping pills. The Out-Patient Department is a place that the narrator has “never seen,” which we come to find is an untruth, or an adverse effect of forgetfulness from ECT. “She has been making time with Johnny Panic again,” the Clinic Director said after discovering her in the hallway of the clinic, reading the record books. The word again implies that our narrator was unreliable; that she wasn’t an employee but a patient.
But what if we decided to believe her? What if she was right to fight the treatment? The narrator’s mission of counteracting medicinal cures represents Plath’s battle against what was deemed acceptable or sane in her society. Like death and resurrection calling to Lazarus, dreams and desires, named panic and depression by society, called to Plath. What if we chose Plath’s reality over society’s reality? If the Clinic Director were mad, if he were worshipping a false god, what would that say about the treatment of those perceived as mad? The story questions reality and the cruelty involved in the treatment of depression or ‘insanity.’ When the story reaches its electrifying climax, the narrator does not flinch as Johnny Panic appears in the sky, she never questions her beliefs. “The Johnny-Panic-Killer,” or the ECT machine, “betrays” the Clinic Director and Plath’s god is summoned to save her narrator. By reading this story, we are pulled into Plath’s reality. I challenge the reader to believe in her, as I do.
She forgets not her own.
Taylor Sykes received her BA in English Education and Creative Writing from Purdue University. She has received several literary awards from Purdue for her creative and critical writing and was recently a finalist in NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction Contest. Her short fiction was published on NPR’s website and a portion was read on the air during All Things Considered. She is passionate about literary outreach and can never pick between writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Currently she leads creative writing workshops at Writopia Lab in New York City.