See, the darkness is leaking from the cracks.
I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life.
The following research concerns an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s personality, especially as it is presented through the character, Esther Greenwood, in the autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, in terms of the psychological theories of Freud, Jung and Rank.
The usual development of the Electra complex in females can go array and lead to psychological problems and Sylvia Plath seems to be an excellent example of the kinds of personality that could result. Freud explains the Electra complex as follows in his essay, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” which has been included in the book Women and Analysis:
The girl has to accept identification with her
mother and at the same time abandon the mother as
love object, turning to her father instead. Her
abandonment is brought about . . . by defeat . . .
girl . . . will never be able to possess the mother
sexually . . . does not have a penis. She turns to
her father only out of resentment against her mother –
for not only is the mother lost as a love object, but
she has brought her daughter into the world inade-
But in “One Freud and Distinction Between the Sexes,” also inn Women and Analysis, Juliet Mitchell slightly modifies this outline of the Electra complex. Instead of:
Ms. Mitchell diagrams the change as:
and explains that both infants love the mother and abandon her at the intervention of the father: “The dual relationship of mother and child is broken into by the father, who prevents the incestuous desires of both his offspring for the mother, whom he alone is allowed to possess.”
The fact that “the father . . . asserts his rights differently in the case of girls and boys” is an important point which Freud’s theory bypasses. In the case of Sylvia Plath (Esther Greenwood) I believe part of what her problem entailed was the fact that, because of his early death, her father did not fully intervene in her mother/daughter relationship. Sylvia was left to imagine what her relationship to her father would have been had he lived:
I thought that if my father hadn’t died, he
would have taught me all about insects, which was
his specialty at the university. He would also
have taught me German and Greek and Latin, which
he knew. . . .
Whether Sylvia’s father would have had such an intellectual relationship with his daughter, with no emotional/sexual overtones, is irrelevant. What matters is that after his death this is the way Sylvia visualized how the relationship would have been. Sylvia’s ambitions in school – her push towards grades, education, writing, etc. can be seen as a direct result of trying to be worthy of her father – trying to be the person she felt her father would have wanted her to be.
If this was the only influence on Sylvia – she probably would not have grown up destined to attempt (and eventually succeed in) suicide; she would have rather been a career woman who enjoyed her teaching and writing. But there were other forces within this disturbed Electra’s complex. It seems that her mother reinforced the intellectualism – but in a negative
way – as a way to escape the problems of being female:
My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother
had taught shorthand and typing to support us
ever since my father died, and secretly she
hated it and hated him for dying and leaving
no money. . . .
And a quote from Nancy Hunter Steiner’s book, A Closer Look at Ariel, tends to reinforce this notion:
No doubt this inexorable academic success
was encouraged by a mother who had become a
school teacher, who had wanted to be a pro-
fessor, and who was making many sacrifices to
ensure that her daughter’s life would be less
restricted than her own, less dependent upon
This overemphasis on intellectualism, financial independence and accomplishments was, unfortunately, quite contrary to the times. During the 1950’s there was a definite societal emphasis on women’s roles as wife and mother. After the war, to convince women to return to their homes and leave their jobs for the returning men, there was a propagandizement of motherhood and housewifery.
It is probably for these reasons that we get Sylvia hating the idea of having children and marrying to become a servant to a man, at the same time that she’s as boy crazy as the next young girl:
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a
sinister, knowing way that after I had children,
I would feel differently. I wouldn’t want to
write poems any more. So I began to think maybe
it was true that when you were married and had
children it was like being brainwashed and after-
ward you went about numb as a slave in some private
That Sylvia, at least later on in her short life, tended to analyze herself and her work in Freudian terms is something suggested by a note she wrote on her poem “Daddy” written for the BBC:
The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra
Complex. Her case is complicated by the fact that
her father was also a Nazi and her mother very
possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two
strains marry and paralyze each other – she has
to act out the awful little allegory once over
before she is free of it.
Significantly, the problem of reconciliation had not originally arisen for Sylvia (Esther) until she was in college and gone off to New York as a guest editor on a magazine. The emphasis on sex, marriage and children combined with her realization that the amassment of school prizes and scholarships is not going to be sufficient in the adult world, triggers the unsolvable dichotomy for Sylvia (Esther):
In New York, Plath ran smack into the reality
principle, as though it had been lurking in ambush
to exact revenge for having been so long and so
relentlessly denied. . . . She feels her carefully
built up public personality dissolve. . . . Above
all, her Betty Coed prudishness found itself
squeezed between the lusts and kinds of New York
swingers from without and her own awakening sexuality
Sylvia’s normal development through an Electra Complex hampered by the ambiguities in the roles projected by her parents means she makes a very intense but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at reconciliating intellectualism/emotionalism, practicality/fantasy, wife and mother roles, and career roles.
Nancy Hunter Steiner, a friend to Sylvia Plath during much of the same period that is covered in Plath’s The Bell Jar, makes the following interesting observation in reference to her perception of her father: “no living man could measure up to the colossus that bestrode the fantasy world of her childhood.”
Interestingly, the idea which Ms. Steiner hints at is also discussed by Carl Jung in a section of his essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious.” Although he is discussing a female philosophy student he could just as easily be discussing Sylvia Plath on her character Esther Greenwood:
the patient was quite unconscious of the fact
that her relation to her father was a fixation,
and that she was therefore seeking a man like
her father, whom she could then meet with her
intellect. This in itself would not have been
a mistake if her intellect had not had that
peculiarly protesting character such as is un-
fortunately often encountered in intellectual
women. Such an intellect is always trying to
point out mistakes in others . . . yet it
always wants to be considered objective . . .
has the unconscious purpose of forcing a man
into a superior position. . . .
In other words, according to Jung’s theory, Sylvia Plath was attempting in her “persona” (the role people take as a compromise between individual ego needs and societal demands) to elevate men (and marriage and children) to the level of attraction/importance that her unconscious belief in the greatness of her father had for her. She was not successful with this reconciliation between “persona” and “unconscious”; when she could not reconciliate who she was supposed to be with who she really was – apparently her “persona” weakened allowing an overflow of the unconscious. And the less able she was in touch or in control of reality the more she was pushed towards seeing death as a way to attain the state of perfection she felt she had lost when her father died.
While the resulting conflict for Sylvia is quite similar as the over-described in the first section on Freudian analysis, the impetus to her conflict is not the same. Freud sees the biological sexual force as the basic motivation for humans while Jung substitutes a more generalized psychological force, “psychic energy,” as motivation.
Freud saw sexual maturity, what he called “genital sexuality,” developing after a child has successfully dealt with the repression of immature sexuality through Oedipus and Electra complexes. On the other hand, Jung saw psychological maturity developing through “individuation,” that is the reconciliation of all parts of the psyche in a peculiarly personal way by each individuation. But by either Freudian or Jungian definition, Sylvia Plath or as she personifies herself in the character of Esther Greenwood, does not/can not attain maturity, sexually, psychologically or socially. And the strain of trying eventually leads her to attempt suicide.
Another aspect of Jung’s theory that may be of interest in the analysis of Sylvia Plath’s personality is that Jung discusses the idea of a “collection unconscious” as opposed to the earlier Freudian idea that man’s unconscious was only a storage for repressed personal psychic material and the content of the “collective unconscious” Jung named “archetypes.” Archetypes develop because man’s unconscious has a need to “assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events . . . the sun in its course must represent the fate of a god or hero, who . . . dwells nowhere except in the soul of man.”
One of the most important of these archetypes is the Mother and in Jung’s discussion of “The Mother-Complex of the Daughter” he describes how Sylvia’s over-emphasis on her father may have been the result of her inability to reconcile her “mother-complex” (found in her “unconscious”) with the realities of her mother and the role of motherhood for which she was expected to fulfill (found in her “persona”). According to Jung, such a mother-complex could mean the total destruction of the maternal instinct and. . . ,
as a substitute, an overdeveloped Eros results,
and this invariably leads to an unconscious
incestuous relationship with the father. . . .
A woman of this type loves romantic and sensa-
tional episodes for their own sake. . . .
This certainly sounds like Esther in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. At the same time she allows herself into sexually compromising situations she hates the idea of marriage and most of all, children: “She decides she ‘hates the idea of serving men in any way,’ and as for the consequences of serving men – ‘children make me sick.'”
Another theorist who it might be fruitful to look at in terms of analyzing Sylvia Plath’s personality is Otto Rank. He is one of the few psychological theorists who have discussed the nature of the creative personality. Freud himself had relatively little to say; basically “that the impulse to artistic productivity originated in the sex impulse.”
Otto Rank wrote an entire book on the creative personality, called Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development. In this book, Rank also talks about the Oedipus complex but he redefines it suggesting that its motivating force must be a more generalized “psychic” force rather than a sexual force:
The artistic reaction is . . . distin-
guishable from the neurotic by an overcoming
of the trauma or of the potentiality of in-
hibition resulting therefrom . . . is the
willed affirmation of the inhibitive family
ties that is the creative and at the same
time liberating factor.
This,, combined with the idea that “only through the will-to-self-immortalization,” which arises from the fear of life, can we understand the interdependence of production and suffering” would suggest that an artist’s motivation to creation has a lot to do with an attempt to cope with life and give it meaning by making into an immortal object all the mortal feelings and experiences of life. This would seem to be an incorrect assessment of Sylvia Plath, who was a productive poet. But apparently her creative production did not succeed in eliminating her fear of life and was not sufficiently, in her own eyes as least, immortalizing of the feelings and fantasies that her subconscious made her subject to. In some way, for some reason, the creative urge must have broken down and Rank’s assessment that “in the neurotic the fear of life predominates and so checks all expression in life,” suggests that Sylvia Plath, unable to feel that she was cheating death by immortalizing herself in her art work, feared – or at least found useless – the experiences life offered and was thereby lead to embrace her mortality.
Nancy Hunter Steiner, Sylvia Plath’s friend at the time of her life that coincides a great deal with the events that are recounted in The Bell Jar, makes an assessment concerning Sylvia’s poetic production which would tend to reinforce the above analysis:
While outwardly playing the serene under-
graduate, Syl was writing poetry in which the
circumstances were not so neatly arranged. In
her work, ugly, distorted worlds exploded and
erupted in metaphoric profusion. . . . She wrote
slowly, plodding through dictionary and thesaurus
searching for the exact word to create and the
poetic impression she intended. . . . Often,
however, the poetry reflected the turbulent
process that was taking place beneath her placid
exterior. At her core, Sylvia experienced a welter
of raging emotions and violent impulses, and on
the surface, to keep them in check, she wore the
mantle of a bourgeois lady, as inhibiting and
restraining as a straight jacket. The words . . .
could be released only painfully, but by agonizing
bit, as though wrenched free of some massive
An analysis, from any theorist’s point of view, of Sylvia Plath’s personality as it is presented through the character of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, is extremely difficult. The story in The Bell Jar is a series of episodes – occurrence, some stranger than others, to be sure – which happen to most adolescents or young college girls. Why these occurrences might have affected Esther Greenwood differently – or more severely – than they would other young women is not fully explained within The Bell Jar itself. We find very little in the story itself about such things as how the character feels or interacts with her parents. The only thing mentioned several times is Esther Greenwood’s opinions about marriage and children, but little elaboration or background is provided on those points. In other words, it is almost impossible to analyze Sylvia’s personality on the slim amount of psychological data provided in The Bell Jar. This was especially true in trying to analyze in terms of Rank theory on the creative personality. Although Sylvia Plat was writing poems at the time that The Bell Jar covers, no mention is made in the autobiographical novel of that fact.
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Freud, Sigmund. “Some Psychological Consequences of the
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Analysis: Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity,
ed. by Jean Strouse. New York: Grossman Publishers
(Viking Press), 1974.
Mitchell, Juliet. “On Freud and the Distinction Between the
Sexes,” in Women and Analysis: Dialogues on Psychoanalytic
Views of Femininity, ed. by Jean Strouse. New York:
Grossman Publishers (Viking Press), 1974.
Platt, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Rank, Otto. Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality
Development. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1932.
Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Close Look at Ariel: A Memory of
Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1975.
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analytic Views on Femininity. New York: Grossman Publish ers (Viking Press), 1974.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), n.p. ↑
Jean Strouse, ed., Women and Analysis: Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974), 4-5. ↑
Diagrams from Juliet Mitchell, “On Freud and the Distinction Between the Sexes,” in Jean Strouse, ed., Women and Analysis: Dialogues in Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974), 34. ↑
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), 135. ↑
Ibid., p. 32. ↑
Nancy Hunter Steiner, A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1975), 15. ↑
Plath, op. cit., 69. ↑
Steiner, op. cit., 27. ↑
Ibid., 21. ↑
Ibid., 17. ↑
Violet Staub de Laszlo, The Basic Writing of C. G. Jung (New York: Modern Library, 1959), 139. ↑
Ibid., 289. ↑
Ibid., 340. ↑
Steiner, op. cit., 16. ↑
Otto Rank, Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1932), 26. ↑
Ibid., 64. ↑
Ibid., 43. ↑
Steiner, op. cit., 43-44. ↑