Having recently read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I was struck by the fine line a writer must tread between establishing a first-person narrator’s mental instability and holding the reader’s attention. It would not do to simply plunge the narrator into a cesspit of bewilderment and despair from which the reader struggles to see the light of day or grapples for sense and meaning. A grasp of mental illness, its various symptoms, diagnoses and causes, may be a useful starting point for some readers, but what of those for whom the narrator’s circumstances are entirely unknown? After all, it is quickly emerging that mental health issues are not easily contained in labelled boxes, but are largely subjective – unique to each individual.
Fear of not being understood, though, does not have to restrict the writer from broaching difficult subjects. Aren’t the greatest works of literature those that de-familiarise the familiar and familiarise the unfamiliar? And this is precisely what Plath achieves with Esther Greenwood’s narration.
Greenwood is a young girl on the cusp of a successful career in New York, when everything she has been – and is expected to be – begins slipping from her grasp. Losing reason and losing control, Greenwood is shepherded by Plath through a frank and remarkably vivid depiction of nervous breakdown, accentuating the ease with which mental despair takes the place of ‘normality’, and often lives alongside it.
Yet, how does the writer manage such a feat without losing or confusing readers?
Warning: Spoilers Alert
The Sliding Scale into Mental Illness
Often an unstable narrator will begin with at least a modicum of sanity, even if the story begins at the very start of the character’s demise. This allows the reader a chance to connect with the character, so that when the narrative begins to move in another direction, the reader can both recognise and empathise with what is happening. The reader is more likely to follow the story through to its conclusion if it is seen as a journey, with the character’s ‘normal’ life being the beginning of that journey.
Though Esther admits in the opening chapter of The Bell Jar that something isn’t right, she is at this point only bewildered that she is not as enthusiastic about her summer posting at a top fashion magazine in New York as she should be: I was supposed to be having the time of my life.
After gaining the reader’s trust, it’s important to maintain it. With the narrator becoming increasingly unreliable, potentially detached from reality, the narrative should become a form of cryptic crossword where clues are left to anchor the reader to the ‘actual’ reality (the narrative is, in effect, depicting a dual reality). This allows the reader greater involvement with the text as they work to understand both what is happening to the narrator and how the narrator is being perceived by other characters in the story. Often the anchoring points will come in the form of the narrator’s perception of other characters and/or other characters’ reactions to the narrator.
Plath signals her readers in many ways:
Vivid and Unusual Descriptions
For an individual suffering mental trauma of one kind or another, life isn’t ‘normal’ in the balanced and happy sense, and so ‘normal’ descriptions won’t do the topic justice. Mental illness often derives from, or becomes, a magnification of things – of emotions, pressures, experiences – and in turn the senses become either heightened or dulled. This gives the writer scope for vivid and/or intense descriptive writing. The unstable narrator looks more closely, notices more, and experiences deeper – and this can be best reflected in inventive and unique descriptions.
On arrival at Doctor Gordon’s private hospital: Then my gaze slid over the people to the blaze of green beyond the diaphanous curtains, and I felt as if I were sitting in the window of an enormous department store. The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.
Concluding the Inconclusive
Tying everything up with a neat bow is rarely recommended in any story, but to do so here would undermine the narrative that has gone before. ‘I’m cured’ endings would not only cheat the reader and the characters, but would present an idealistic and detrimental view of mental illness. So, how to wrap up a story in which the narrator’s mental health journey will perhaps never end? Some possibilities are: acceptance – of one’s condition and circumstances; recovery – setting out on a new journey of recovery and re-discovery; connections – made with a person or place or thing, where once there was only disconnection; a passing over of the narration to a third party – where a complete breakdown or lack of coherent voice has occurred.
On appearing before the board of dismissals at the asylum: I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead – after all, I had been 'analyzed’. Instead, all I could see were question marks… The eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.
Plath, S. (1963), The Bell Jar, 2005 ed., Faber and Faber Limited, London.