Sylvia Plath Theme of Honesty
D. Salinger’s character ‘Holden Caulfield’ in ‘Catcher in the Rye’. Both characters have a cynical tendency to constantly reveal their inner most opinions about the society around them, discussing their feelings about personalities and appearances. Plath and Salinger were both born in the early twentieth century, despite this had completely opposing backgrounds and upbringings. Plath experienced a quiet and subtle early life in Winthrop Massachusetts, a small seaport town. Whereas Salinger endured a mainstream, fast paced and fashionable beginning in the city of New York.
Both these places can make a person incredibly sociable or utterly isolated. Emily Dickinson’s ‘Selected Poems’ also reveals honesty and she confesses her depression very openly and concisely. Being born in the nineteenth century, Dickinson often expresses her opinions of the social placement of women and their restricted lives. She is unlike the ‘stereotypical woman’ of her era, and retaliates in her writing against the inequalities between the sexes. Many critics believe her to be a feminist.
Throughout the ‘Coming of age’ novel ‘The Bell Jar’, Greenwood, the protagonist narrator, is constantly breaking down situations, people and objects around her, like saliva to food. She over analyses the nature of society all around her, and enjoys criticising. When Greenwood first introduces the reader to ‘Doreen’, the mischievous opposite to Greenwood, she contradicts her description beginning with ‘I guess one of my troubles was Doreen’. This statement makes the reader begin to build a negative, unpleasant personality in their minds. However she concludes her escription with ‘a mysterious sneer, as if all the people around her were pretty silly and she could tell some good jokes on them if she wanted to’. This statement shows a clear admiration for Doreen, differing from the initial introduction, however also shows Esther expressing her opinion of Doreen being a mean kind of person, but likes that about her. This could be considered to be a hidden metaphor, for Greenwood’s slow decent into depression and madness, beginning with confusion and uncertainty, typical signs of insanity, which reflects the rest of her story. This is an upfront and honest introduction to the novel.
This shows a friendship between the two characters, but a kind that is of a girlish jealous nature. Greenwood clearly admires Doreen’s personality but envies her social power at the same time. Plath also reveals Greenwood’s detachment and alienation from others throughout the novel, isolating her character. This could be to remind the reader of her insane self compared to the sane society and people around her. This can be explained through Greenwood stating ‘I felt myself shrinking to a small black dot against all those red and white rugs, and that pine-panelling.
I felt like a hole in the ground’, in this short description of her feelings, she shows vast indications of isolation and depression. The use of the words ‘shrinking’ and ‘small’ reflect her feelings of disappearing and becoming non-existent to the world. Also, describing herself as ‘black’ compared to the ‘red and white rugs’ is a use of juxtaposition in the colours, which show how uninteresting she finds herself, being dull and dark in comparison to the bright vibrant rugs, which could imply the rest of society around her. This identification of herself could be considered an honest view of how others perceive her.
Another character that is slated by Esther’s criticism is Dr. Gordon. She belittles him by saying ‘How could this Dr. Gordon help me anyway? With his beautiful wife, and his beautiful children, and his beautiful dog, haloing him like a Christmas card’. Dr. Gordon is the psychiatrist who made a mistake during Esther’s electroshock therapy in a terrible way. As the patriarch of the ideal American family, Dr. Gordon seems to represent American society, punishing Esther for going against social expectations, rejecting marriage and family.
This shows her honesty and awareness of her social differences and views with the rest of society, and is mocking them for being so stereotypical. Her repetition of the word ‘and’ reminds the reader of a list, almost as though Esther is expressing that there are endless differences between society and herself. J. D. Salinger uses the character of Holden Caulfield in parallel with Plath’s character Greenwood, a first person, and protagonist narrator. Holden also suffers with the illness of contradiction, alongside insanity of course, this is another similarity the two characters share.
The reader is introduced to an upfront, confident Holden, whom from the setting of the novel, is obviously tense with the topic of family, and starts by stating ‘I don’t feel like going into all of it’, then continues to ‘go into it all’ by describe how annoyed his parents would be if he disclosed any personal information, ‘Especially my father’. He is building a personality of his father without realizing, showing a particular conflict with his father, more so than other members of the family. He is also separating himself from his family in that he would openly discuss their issues, whereas his family would not.
Essentially, the readers receive an immediate separation and self alienation from his family, and recognise Holden’s critical personality from the start. It is clear that throughout ‘The Bell Jar’, the character of Esther is used by Plath to explore the theme of sexuality, and the effect the 1950’s attitude towards sex had on the women of that time. ‘Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed. This description of Buddy’s penis does not only reveal Esther’s criticisms of other further, but we begin to see her real attitude towards sex and Buddy himself. The general theme between Esther and Buddy is that of sexual tension and virginity, however, although Esther is supposed to be ‘in love’ with buddy, it’s quite clear that she is not attracted to him and is not very fond of him altogether, we see this at the point where she is supposed to be at her most happy or intimate, when Buddy becomes naked in front of her, she feels ‘very depressed’.
This may not be completely down to the appearance of Buddy’s private parts, but may be Esther’s attitude towards sex altogether, that she is only so eager to lose her virginity because it was the social norm, and wanted to be ‘part of a great tradition’. Esther shows her honest view upon societies attitude towards sex and its sexist inequalities towards sex when she says ‘I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure one not. ’ Plath is trying to portray through Esther her rebellious opinions towards sexual inequalities between men and women.
In the novel, Esther discovers that sexuality is divorced from any expression of love and passion. Sex for women is only a necessity within marriage to have children, and has no relevance with romance or intimacy, Esther could be showing the reader her honest feelings of wanting to have a double life like the men of her era, and be able to experience sexual encounters out of passion and love, no just for starting a family, without being judged. However could also be suggesting her view that all people should remain celibate until marriage, both men and women, but on both interpretations, she is yearning for equality amongst the sexes.
With Emily Dickinson’s unconventional style of writing and rebellious grammar, it is not a surprise that her poems do not meet the same literacy concepts as Plath and Salinger. Her poem ‘A Narrow fellow In the Grass’ reflects her individuality and opposing touch of honesty towards sexuality in every stanza. The literal and logical interpretation for the poem is her longing to see a snake in the grass, but only being able to glance at sections of the snake. However, Luann Suhr claims that the poem ‘is in fact about the fear a virgin has towards sex’.
This differs from Plath and Salinger’s habit of blurting constant criticism of others, and shows a clear self aggravation and criticism. There are many literary devices used to allude to its sexual theme. Dickinson shows the fear of a virgin by knowing the naturalness of sex yet still being afraid of it. This is accomplished through the literary devices of personification, metaphor, and visual imagery. In the first line of the first stanza, by using the word “fellow” in her description of the snake she alludes to the snake in regards to man. In colloquial terms, the word snake is often used with regards to male genitalia.
A “narrow fellow” can therefore be read as the male penis. This could also relate to her opinion of men being sneaky like snakes towards the concept of sex, compared to the expectations of a woman to remain celibate, showing her honest neglect of the sexist attitude that society has to sexuality. The second stanza ‘The grass divides as with a comb- Aspotted shaft is seen- And then it closes at your feet and opens further on’ Dickinson has purposely used opposing adjectives to represent her curiosity about sex, how one moment she is captivated by the idea of losing her virginity, then the next her mind closes’ her imagination because she knows she must remain celibate until marriage. It could also represent a previous sexual encounter that was never fulfilled, she is giving the reader an insight into her mind and how ‘dividing’ her mind like this could cause her mental illness to thrive. Once she has captured a small snippet of understanding ‘Aspotted shaft’, her sub conscious ‘closes’ her out. Dickinson’s confusion is clear, it sounds almost as though she is at war with herself, insanity, society and again differs from Plath and Salinger in that she does not alienate herself from society, but from her own emotions and desires.
Despite this, she carries on fantasizing about this sexual encounter by saying “sudden is” Dickinson is stating that this male is quick to ejaculate. This can be further proved by the line before which says, “you may have met him”. The word “met” can be referring to the sexual meeting, and therefore puts a sexual connotation to the next line. When Dickinson reaches for this thing that scares her so much, it disappears. In the end of stanza four, she says, “it wrinkled, and was gone”. This is the visual imagery of a penis becoming flaccid.
This man she is describing may represent her constant need to please, and fit in. Her honest desperation to communicate her frame of mind seeps through, when the reader finishes the poem to discover, that not even in the final stanza, does she reveal the root of the poem or what its meaning is, leaving readers to feel her confusion, to have a sense of what it would be like to suffer from mental illness, not knowing why or understanding the thoughts she has. Her complete sincerity leaves the reader, in a state of confusion, reflecting her everyday agenda.
An aspect of honesty which can be related to all three authors is the honesty with the self and self reflection. Sylvia Plath uses the character of Esther Greenwood to portray her own personal attributes that she struggled to express in reality. We see this when greenwood describes her drink as ‘wet an depressing’, the very statement that a drink is depressing shows how irritating her character is, in the sense that she complains and reverts anything and everything she sees or touches to seem as depressing as she is.
This could be Plath expressing through Greenwood that she is irritated by herself and her own character, the illness is not only discovered, but it irritates her, revealing a full acknowledgement of its existence. This honest analysis in itself portrays that Greenwood sees herself as an irritation to society and this could explain her isolated behaviour, a fear of not being accepted. Another self reflective part of the novel is stage in which Esther begins to lose touch with herself worth, ‘I started adding up all the things I couldn’t do’… I felt inadequate’. Up until the summer before Esther’s senior year, she had done a good job at being a student of literature. However the thought of entering the real world terrifies her. The world she lives in seems to have no place for the literary ideals that she cherishes, which of course is her being pessimistic. This could be forcing her to doubt herself, and self worth towards the world, which may represent Plath attempting to portray Esther as feeling worthless and useless.
Or, another view could be that Esther sees herself as being too complex and misunderstood for the simple minds and dreams of the typical American girl of that era. Emily Dickinson shows honesty with the self and self reflection in the poem ‘The soul has Bandaged moments’ which explores through symbolism, an internalised spiritual and psychological state of experiences of the soul. Which is personified as a woman, and some may interoperate the personification to be Dickinson herself. In the first stanza it says ‘The soul has bandaged moments’ which shows a physical and abstract outlook and insight of the soul.
It also implies injury and pain that could metaphorically mean that the soul being personified as Dickinson, she is hurt by her mental illness and attempts to heal herself when ‘she feels some ghastly fright come up to stop and look at her’. This could represent her soul searching and not being fond of what she finds in her mind, or it could alternatively represent her mental illness of depression creeping up on her, it has a sinister feel and may be considered that the mental illness is trespassing, on the privacy of her soul and self.
She views this as a form of psychological assault and molester by using words in stanza two such as, ‘caress’ and ‘hovered-o’er’. These bring feelings of uncomfortability and helplessness to the reader. Dickinson is trying to express the mercilessness of insanity. This shows Dickinson’s fear of herself and her capability, some may view it as a panic towards her ever-growing stronger insanity and her ever-growing weaker free will against is. To conclude, a critic once claimed that ‘Writers, who suffer with mental illness, are likely to revolve their writing around complete honesty of their mind.
Which, in a sense, creates more emotional and believable connections with the reader, making the insanity seem normal, and allow the reader to feel an attachment with the author’, some may consider this statement to be complete nonsense, however, the analytical evidence shows that there may be some truth in this observation. One may find the ability for Plath, Dickinson and Salinger, all of different era and lifestyle, to have managed to create such personalities and mind wondering scenarios with just the use of a single concept of honesty to be greatly admired.