A Comparison of Sylvia Plath’s Original Work Versus the Film Version of The Bell Jar: If I am an Arrow
by Trudy A. Martinez
In the film, The Bell Jar, the prelude imitates a young girl’s position within society; cinematic techniques create this allusion through the girl’s symbolic actions responding to a confining realm. As a result, the culminating points they make by way of the lighting, the music, and the movement implies restriction and thus derives meaning.
The culminating points correspond with the story line of Plath’s original work. For instance, as a monotone piano tone ushers in the figure of a young girl turning slowly in a circular motion, slight glimmers of light encase her form within the darkness of the set. As her hands extend outwardly and then upwardly, a strum of a harp is heard. The outward extension of her hands represent her striving for educational achievement, while the upward movement demonstrates she lacks satisfaction with education alone and wants to spread out further than those limits in the direction of the American Dream. The arrangement of light symbolizes her enlightenment of the dream; whereas, the darkness of the set signifies it is hampering her. Consequently, because of her desire for upward mobility, the strum announces restrictions.
The strum recommends the hands stay within allowable boundaries. After a few attempts to extend beyond the imaginary confines, the hands are placed within the pockets of the skirt and the defining light dims. Movement of the hands into a forward protrusion under the skirt renders the shape of a pregnant woman. Immediately, Gerald Fried’s music converts to a lullaby as the girl is seen swaying back and forth to the regular succession of sounds, chanting a villanelle, a “Mad Girl’s Love Song”:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.) . . .
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And snug me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.) . . .
(I think I made you up inside my head.) . . .
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
Before the framework of the opening sequence is complete, an underlying theme suggests societal restraints force the girl to succumb to limitations and the fear of pregnancy is the reason for her ultimate mental instability.
Under the direction of Larry Peerce, actress Marilyn Hassett (a Barbie doll double), introduces herself as Ester Greenwood. “I ‘m an all American girl,” she says, “A girl wonder, a scholarship student.” And then she utters, “I think I made her up inside my head.” Consequently, she questions her status: “Me a poet? Are you kidding?”
In this manner, an inferiority complex that diminishes her accomplishment is established, requiring her to justify her actions in order to bring herself back within the acceptable norms of society: “I am a very proper New England girl. I attend a very proper New England college where I win prizes.”
The main prize Ester wins is a trip to Ladies Day magazine. This prize builds the American Dream in others, announcing and enhancing the status of being an American citizen:
Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car (2).
A showering of gifts announces and intensifies the film’s American Dream aspect at the magazine’s headquarter meeting. However when company officials announce they will even supply men, the camera switches to a view of excitement glowing on the young participants’ faces. Conversely, when the film dramatizes Ester’s attraction to “a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence” of luxurious fashions that Doreen symbolizes for her (4), it adds a dimension, suggesting the attraction to Doreen magnifies a hidden lesbian tendency.
This hidden dimension contradicts the initial underlying theme the prelude produces. The film draws inference to a lesbian inclination through Esther’s countenance in the sequence where she sits in the bar with Lenny (Robert Klien), Doreen, and Frankie. Her indifference to Frankie is highlighted when he asks her to dance and she replies with a firm “No.” The camera focuses on Doreen’s exhibitions that keep Lenny in awe, and then switches back to Ester, giving the impression that her apathy towards Frankie is a reflection of a more than a casual interest in Doreen. In this way, the film does not convey Plath’s intention: “The thought of dancing with that little runt . . . made [Ester] laugh” (9).
The similitude enhances later at Lenny’s apartment, when Doreen and Ester dance together. Just outside their immediate circle in the background, Lenny dances by his self. Subsequently, all three of them dance wildly together. And then the camera switches to all of them tumbling on the bed. Ester is seen caressing Doreen, reinforcing the lesbian concept. Consequently, Ester runs away when she realizes the magnitude of this drunken action.
The film frames the lesbian notion around Ester’s deteriorating life and makes it seem as if she is “. . . coming apart at the seams,” as she says in the introductory sequence, because she does not accept the affinity.
In order for the film version to communicate openly what is purported to be Ester’s secret thoughts, Joan’s part in Ester’s life expands from a mere acquaintance who Ester only knows from “a cool distance” (160) to her best friend. Joan’s overly emphasized reactions to Ester’s every word and move as they discuss the different modes of suicide suggests her sexual designs on Ester. In a much later scene Joan learns after making an advance and requesting sexual favors that Ester loathes this unnatural attraction. The film implies Ester drives Joan to suicide. And as a result, Ester has to face her own lesbian desires to be free of her own suicidal drive.
In the original work, Ester’s suicidal drive stimulates a feeling of inadequacy (not lesbian desires). Instead, she feels stupid for buying “all those uncomfortable, expensive clothes” (1). She feels stupid because she’s attracted to Buddy Willard who went to Yale after she learns Doreen thinks “Yalies” [are] “so stoo-pet!”(6). She feels stupid because she “felt very low” after Jay Cee brings to the surface “all [her] . . . uncomfortable suspicions” of inadequacies (24).
On the other hand, the film portrays Jay Cee (Barbara Barrie) as vindictive towards Ester. Her command, following a snicker of laughter, “We are looking to you for a certain kind of intellectual elevation,” implies malicious intentions. In a much later scene, Jay Cee makes Ester feel extremely inadequate by saying her views are “poison.” Jay Cee tells Ester she needs to identify with other college students who never heard of Joyce. Ester conveys, by aggressively playing with her pencil, she is unable to deal with criticism. Jay Cee then asks her: “Did you think this was one of your cinch courses that you will get an “A?”
Ester isn’t getting “A’s” in her personal life either. Instead, indecisiveness takes over. Deciding what she should or shouldn’t do, makes her feel even more inadequate and sad (23-25). She feels Doreen serves as a “concrete testimony to [her] own dirty nature” (19). The bell jar symbolizes her fear of sex and pregnancy which imprisons her in a world of double standards: 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 and one not” (66). She “. . . knew . . . what [Buddy] secretly wanted was for her to flatten out underneath his feel like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat” (69). The film obscures these concerns and completely ignores Ester’s sexual fears: She tells Dr. Nolan, “What I really hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb . . . A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line” (181). The bell jar is an extremely significant symbol in Plath’s original work; whereas in the film, the bell jar only serves instrumentally to frame the ending.
The symbolization of the bell jar entraps Ester in the stereotypical domesticity of the role of mother and housewife. Society’s expectation of woman’s domesticity is a condition which indirectly bears responsibility for Ester’s inferiority complex. Fear is the controlling factor. Even though Ester may want to experiment with sex, she feels she is not free to do so because of the fear of pregnancy. Individual female education goals and desires are secondary in society’s framework. This is apparent when her mother (Julie Harris) stresses women must be practical and learn shorthand. In other words, woman must heed what a society of man dictates. Learning shorthand serves as a message to Ester of her place within society. As a result, she feels inferior because even with all her education she does not have the knowledge she needs to survive in the world:
“Not knowing shorthand meant not getting a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted plain English major. But English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men, and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter. The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters”(61-62).
Plath suggests Ester’s inferiority complex is an extension of a societal norm, a norm that does not accept women as equal to men in any way. Regardless of a woman’s educational accomplishments, she can only hope to please a man by doing his bidding or serving him. The double standard extends not only to the workplace but also to personal choice, limiting a woman’s sexual freedom through fear by trapping her in the stereotypical role of mother and housewife.
The introductory framework of the film also gives the allusion of entrapment. However, when the film introduces the abnormality of a lesbian sexuality into the story, it changes the original theme of fear and entrapment by serving lesbianism up as an avenue of escape from the bell jar hanging over head. The film is not brought back into perspective with the original work until after the death of Joan with Ester’s exclamation: “I am. I am. I am.” Then the film immediately diverges again, framing the beginning with the end by addressing the person in the bell jar: “To the person in the bell jar blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream” (193). Ester recounts, “I asked [Dr. Nolan] if I would survive. She said, yes. She at once freed me and condemned me back to life”. Then as if an afterthought she says,” If am the arrow, I cannot fly through darkness.” In other words, all the change and excitement she wants is null and void because she can’t “. . . shoot off in all directions [herself], like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket”(68).
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Bantam Books (published by arrangement
with Harper & Row). 1972.
Kellog, Marjorie, The Bell Jar. Directed by Larry Peerce, Based on
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.