Guest Post: Sylvia Plath, Paul Ricoeur and the language of madness

By Jess Phillips, Honours Candidate in Literary Studies, Monash University

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963 and released just weeks before she committed suicide in her London home.[1] The novel is a first-person account of Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old aspiring writer who whilst on a writing internship in New York begins to feel that something is wrong with her. Upon returning home to Boston, she discovers that she hasn’t been accepted for a competitive writing course at university. This news catalyses for Esther several suicide attempts and admissions to psychiatric wards.


What drew me to Plath’s novel was her remarkable use of simile and metaphor to describe and represent Esther’s experience. Her language struck me at times as inconsistent, ambiguous and highly nuanced, yet also strangely precise. Later I discovered this was for good reason. Plath’s vocabulary is derived from lived experience, not divorced from it. Her strenuous efforts at locating verbal equivalents for Esther’s experience point to the limits language has for expressing subjective states of being, whilst revealing nuances and insight into the experience of madness that are often obscured when a scientific understanding is privileged.

So how does Plath use simile in her writing and to what effect? What does her idiosyncratic vocabulary reveal about the experience of madness that a literal discourse such as the language of modern science would obscure? These are but some of the questions my research is exploring.

French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur makes an interesting case for metaphor, not simile as the means through which new knowledge and surprising connections can be brought about through language. In The Rule of Metaphor Ricoeur argues that because metaphor involves implicit comparisons between two terms, because the connections or relations that two terms share are not always obvious, metaphor produces new knowledge about a subject, contradicts reader’s expectations and uncovers hidden relationships. For Ricoeur, “metaphor teaches us something…it contributes to the opening up of a field of reality other than which ordinary language is capable of laying bare.”[2]

While simile is like metaphor in that it too involves relations between two terms, for Ricoeur simile is less complex as it involves a direct or explicit attribution using ‘like’ or ‘as’. He argues that this direct comparison “reduces the dynamism and provocation of inquiry” that metaphor achieves so well.[3] He goes further to state that simile, unlike metaphor, relies on the connections between two terms, being “facts of discourse” or “perceived resemblances,” relations that already exist in our common language usage. [4]  So, he concludes simile does nothing special, nothing to generate new knowledge and insight about a subject.

While I agree with Ricoeur’s claims about metaphor, I feel that he dismisses the creative potential of simile when used to describe and represent subjective experience. In my research into Plath’s writing, I have discovered that contrary to Ricoeur’s claims that leave simile bereft of value, Plath reveals the creative potential of simile; its capacity to produce new knowledge and insight into the lived experience of madness.

Let’s have a look at how Plath achieves the apprehension of new knowledge and connections that at first glance seem purely “facts of discourse.” Upon returning home to Boston, Esther’s sleep begins to be disrupted. After leaving Dr Gordon, her psychiatrist following her first Electro Shock Treatment, she states that she hasn’t slept for twenty-one nights. Feigning sleep one morning until her mother has left for work, she describes her experience of insomnia using simile:

I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt very dark and very safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough. I needed about a tonne more to make me sleep.[5]

The drawing of mattress and tombstone into an explicit comparison using the term ‘like’ reveals new knowledge about Esther’s experience of madness and insomnia. Firstly, let’s look at what the tombstone connotes, that is, at what is implied in ‘tombstone’ in addition to its essential or literal meaning. What are some of the associations we make when we come up against this term?

‘Tombstone’ connotes death, a grave, graveyard and a weathered, heavy and oftentimes illegible memory of a life. One’s first inclination, as was mine, when reading this simile is to conflate tombstone with coffin or earth leading to the dissipation of surprise as this is an obvious connection, a resemblance that already exists within our common language usage.[6]  This relation would make good sense and seem compatible with Esther’s attempts at hauling her mattress over herself. But I sense there are hidden connections here, so let’s go a little deeper.

In burial, it is not the tombstone that falls across the body or coffin, but dirt, sand and earth. To replace dirt, earth or sand with tombstone in this simile suggests that Esther feels as though she is already dead; she is already buried and the tombstone which would act as a beacon to the living, to denote her position beneath the earth, has fallen across the remains of her body, making the memory of her life to the living world invisible. Therefore, we may conclude that Esther’s subjective experience of insomnia (and by extension of madness) is likened to an invisible death. “I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone,” when examined deeply and patiently says more about Esther’s experience of madness and insomnia and language’s inability to faithfully represent them, than a more literal rendering such as “I feel dead inside,” ever could.

This new knowledge and insight into the lived and felt experience of Esther’s insomnia and of madness is only made possible by the connections Plath generates between tombstone and mattress; connections that are not obvious facts of discourse. And it is simile, not metaphor that makes this new knowledge possible.

While Plath’s writing may unsettle her readers, in the absence of definitive meaning she reveals something very important about language and subjective experience. For Plath, language will always lack the means for expressing the subtle nuances that are highly particular to each one of us. Perhaps the absence of definitive meaning in favour of a multiplicity of meaning unsettles readers because it urges them to re-evaluate the motivations for and implications of attempts at imposing a definitive understanding over what are oftentimes chaotic, enigmatic states. And perhaps contrary to Ricoeur’s rejection of simile, it too is an important tool for conveying these nuances and deepening our vocabulary for expressing the difficult things.

 

Jess Phillips is an Honours candidate in Literary Studies at Monash University. Her thesis explores the use of metaphor and simile in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to represent and describe the experience of madness. http://www.jessp.net

 

  1. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).
  2. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor (1975), translated by Robert Czerny with Kathleen Mc Laughlin and John Costello, SJ. (Routledge Classics: Oxon, 2003), 174.
  3. Ibid, 29.
  4. Ibid, 29.
  5. Ibid, 29-30.
  6. Plath, The Bell Jar, 118.
  7. Plath, The Bell Jar,
  8. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 29-30.