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On Sylvia Plath and the Many Shades of Depression



By Gabrielle Bellot

“I am only thirty,” the narrator of Sylvia Plath’s monumental 1962 poem, “Lady Lazarus,” announces early. “And like the cat I have nine times to die.” Like the biblical Lazarus, she has returned from the silent room from which one is never supposed to return; she also resembles Plath herself, who attempted suicide multiple times. Read in light of Plath’s history, her resurrections become the failures of both women’s suicidal attempts, a failure at once triumphant, in that she gets to live again, and tragic, for the same reason. 

In an introduction to the poem for the BBC in December of 1962, Plath described Lady Lazarus as “a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also,” Plath added, “just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.” 

For some of us, Death offers her hand more than once for a dance in her ballroom. We may want her to, fed up as we are with life, or we may be swallowed up by the grey of depression, not even fully realizing we have taken Death’s dark-nailed fingers in ours. We sway, her blue curls brushing our cheeks, her soft scent become almost familiar after the second time around the floor under the pink-black lanterns, but we always find ourselves, with rage or relief, back beyond the dancefloor, breathing. We fail to die, try as we might. 

If Lady Lazarus is defined by her brushes with and ultimate defiance against death, such is also the case, though more poignantly, with another heroine of Plath’s, Esther Greenwood, the narrator of her only finished novel, The Bell Jar. (She had started composing at least two other novels before her death, one manuscript of which Plath’s mother claimed was lost to fire; only The Bell Jar was completed.) Though finished in 1961, the part-autobiographical novel—its early titles were Diary of a Suicide or The Girl in the Mirror, the latter of which emphasizes Esther’s connection to Plath—was published in England in January, 1963, mere weeks before Plath would kill herself. Early reviews seemed tepid; Plath felt stung. Her abusive husband, Ted Hughes, had abandoned her, leaving her to raise two children—Frieda, three, and Nicholas, one—alone. Early in the morning on February 11th, in the London flat William Butler Yeats had once lived in, she ended her life by placing her head in an oven, gas switched on. Wishing to spare her children, if not herself, she opened the window and sealed off the kitchen door with tape and wet towels, so that the lethiferous carbon monoxide would not leak through. In her last parental act, small but heartbreaking, she left out mugs of milk for her children before turning on the oven.
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Depression—that bell jar that seems inescapable when it descends over you, or when it possesses you like a soul-sucking spirit—is the novel’s great killer.

Despite being an American, she had expressly requested that The Bell Jar not be published in America, as its roman à clef elements were clear enough that she feared her family and acquaintances recognizing themselves in it. Ergo, American readers would have to wait until the next decade for her only novel to reach their shores, though bootleg copies of The Bell Jar quickly appeared in bookstores in New York and elsewhere, largely because Plath’s suicide had caused her fame to swell. Suddenly, everyone wanted to The Bell Jar, in case it might hold a key to her self-execution; the publishers who had earlier pooh-poohed her subject matter now yenned for the rights to it. For young women, in particular, The Bell Jar resonated, provided they could get their hands on a copy. 

Aurelia Plath, her mother, was perhaps the largest obstacle to publication. In 1970, shortly before the novel was set to finally officially appear in America, Aurelia wrote a revealing letter to her late daughter’s editor at Harper & Row in New York. The novel would create “personal suffering… in the lives of several people,” she said. According to Aurelia, Plath had told her that what she’d accomplished in The Bell Jar was “to throw together events from my own life, fictionalizing to add color—it’s a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown… I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.” “Practically every character,” her mother added, “represents someone—often in caricature—whom Sylvia loved… as this book stands by itself, it represents the basest ingratitude.” Fortunately for literature, the publisher ignored Aurelia’s wishes. 

The Bell Jar chronicles Esther’s fall. She is many things: fashion model and would-be writer; compulsive liar; a girl in search of experience and identity. Esther’s life is neutral: she achieves publicity in New York as a model but fails to get into a writing class she’d wanted to attend, and her few (if naïve) experiences with men, most notably Buddy Willard, leave her unhappily agnostic about the possibility of finding a faithful romantic partner. 

Without any specific trigger, Esther becomes adrift and unmotivated, unable to sleep or muster the energy to change her clothes or wash her hair for weeks. She cannot even concentrate for long on the world around her. Later, on the advice of a therapist, she receives electroshock therapy, and then, because it has not jolted her out of the gray quicksand, she begins a long period of contemplating various forms of suicide—slitting her wrists with Gillette razors, shooting herself in the head, drowning, hanging, amongst others—though her fear of how much each method will hurt, how long they will take, and whether or not they will fail stunt most of her self-ending efforts. The razors will take too long, and the cuts will be hard to do, and her wrist looks so strange; a bullet to the brain seems too masculine, too easy to botch; noose knots are so wretched to tie, and her domicile, disappointingly, has no proper place to hang herself from. Killing oneself, she learns, is hard. “[M]y case was incurable,” she muses when imagining being sent to an asylum, so she resumes her ruminations about death. 

For all of Esther’s myopic naivete about the world, she has thought deeply about the logistics of suicide—which brings the book close to home for those of us, like myself, who have drifted under the dull sun of suicidality. The image-rich narration fragments as Esther sinks deeper into a kind of vacuous Sartrean nausea. She finally overdoses on pills in her home’s cellar, as Plath herself did in 1953. After failing to die, she ends up in a series of psychiatric wards, receiving more electroshock against her will. At the end, she is about to enter a final institutional interview where the doctors will review her case; if they deem her ready to leave, she will be free to go.
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The Bell Jar is a book of death. But Esther’s suicide attempt is merely one of them. Depression—that bell jar that seems inescapable when it descends over you, or when it possesses you like a soul-sucking spirit—is the novel’s great killer. 

Depression is not always visible; some of the most depressed people may even produce rapturous things, like the late designer Kate Spade. Because depression is largely an “invisible” affliction, there is a marked—and gendered—tendency to doubt its existence in someone, not unlike with Lyme Disease, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain that tend to affect women more than men—as Sick, Porochista Khakpour’s powerfully harrowing, tell-all memoir of living with Lyme, details. 

Depression stops, feels demonic, dulling, possessive, a gray that takes you over, until you become stagnant and stilled, until you lose your colors, and all you see and feel is its quiet heaviness, its storm-cloud hue.

Though depression is not the same as the afflictions above, they often, in outline, share themes. You begin to resent your own body as a senseless prison, a familiar yet Escherian labyrinth of pain and shame. You feel ashamed for something you did not cause yourself to have, so humiliated you may begin to think, even unceremoniously in passing while on the bus or watching a movie, of suicide. It latches onto you, under you, over you. 

I’m still trying to figure out how to speak with less shame about my struggles therewith, the little cages in shadow I fear to open, lest a too-familiar shape rush out. 

Sadness has many shades. A smoky, deepening sadness, the indigo before twilight unboxes her stars. A thinner sorrow, like the rags of old banana trees, the fluttering garments of sea-ghosts. There is even a soft, slow melancholy that intersects with happiness, a sad happiness, drifting like a jellyfish, distant-yet-there as an ambient soundscape by Brian Eno. 

But none of these approach depression. Depression only looks like sadness on the surface because some of its symptoms appear similar; in reality, depression is a failure, even of sadness. It is the slow fade of emotions, of will, until both disappear. 

“The world of the happy person is a different one from that of the unhappy person,” Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus. “Just as with death the world does not change, but stops.” Depression stops, feels demonic, dulling, possessive, a gray that takes you over, until you become stagnant and stilled, until you lose your colors, and all you see and feel is its quiet heaviness, its storm-cloud hue.

It is hard to fight, this gray, graying demon. Depression is not sadness; depression lives in the deeps below sadness, in a sepulcher-place where you hurt so much you almost stop feeling altogether. It drains your motivation to do what you normally would, even the simplest would of all, to live. Sadness is blue and night-dark; depression is just gray, dull, flat, empty, the hueless hue of helplessness. No one can help when it takes over, at least not by commonsensical means. Logic may not work. Reassurance may not work. Hugs and gentle touches may help a little, but they don’t fully pull you up from the gray sands, either. Going for walks outside may help—or hurt. Antidepressants save some, paradoxically worsen the grey in others. Suicide, like depression, has no single reflection, no single way it manifests in individuals. 

Depression is the gray stillness before a hurricane, that static atmosphere of inactivity, when you feel so hopeless and failed and filled by loss that you neglect to put up your hurricane shutters, neglect to take in your potted plants and outdoor furniture, neglect to close up your house at all even when the baying of the hound-gales has become audible because you don’t believe you deserve to survive whatever storm hits you, indeed want a storm to hit you (even as you may fear the pain of it hitting you), just so it will end the gray, finally, by ending you. 

Ironically, as the philosopher Jean Améry noted in his 1976 essay collection, On Suicide, the feelings that lead to a suicidal attempt can represent the apex of living, as your life, by taking on the cast of uselessness, also takes on grander, vaster, more extreme dimensions than it may have had before. You feel little, yet by virtue of this you also feel very deeply, so deeply that you become overwhelmed by and numbed, a symptom of your life taking on a tragic consequentiality far beyond your limits. Of course, the ironic ramification of this is death. 

This brief life-swell from stepping into Death’s ballroom can be peculiarly addictive. Goethe’s romanticist 1774 novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the titular character commits suicide, inspired a slew of readers to not only dress like Werther, but take their lives in the same way he did. The cult film Heathers pushes suicide almost to its limit, transforming it into a “trend” that young Americans decide to get on, so as to achieve posthumous popularity through their means of self-murder and their suicide notes. 

Suicide, like depression, has no single reflection, no single way it manifests in individuals. We do them injustice by pretending there is only one, unvarying description of each.
Where I grew up in Dominica, we rarely spoke about mental health. When it came up, people often treated it like weakness to be shaken off, especially for young men. Depression was something white Americans and Europeans had, not something we dealt with. Therapists only worked with crazy people, family and friends said in passing. I internalized this stigma. To seek a specialist’s help for depression would be to admit that you were mad. This rhetoric was insultingly simplistic and parochial, but until my mid-twenties, it kept me from asking for anyone’s aid for the problems that dragged me into the deeps. 

So, for years, I treated depression like something I had to deal with myself. 

And I thought I was succeeding. I knew what I imagined therapists would say to each of my concerns. My depression rarely kept me from functioning; I never forsook hygiene. In graduate school in Florida, I even taught college classes when the gray descended, knowing I would probably feel better by session’s end because teaching forced me to focus on something else. I never cut myself. Sometimes, I even sensed the gray before it reached me, like the monstrous crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly that pursued Hook in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, and if I could hear those death-ticks in advance, I could try to push it away before it grabbed hold. I felt almost in control. 

I should have known better. 

Like Esther, who stops sleeping for weeks, insomnia was my bête noire. As a child, I slept well, but in my early twenties in grad school in Florida, something shifted. I was more stressed than ever, but not simply because of schoolwork; it was harder and harder to live each day pretending to be male, which was what most people perceived me as before I came out as transgender. 

Sleep slowly slipped away, until I marveled at how I had ever slumbered with ease in the past. I tried sleeping pills, tried remedies of the old world like valerian, tried in vain to get soursop leaves from back home, which had been a country cure for sleeplessness. Nothing worked for long. My insurance at the time didn’t believe that disorders of the mind were worth insuring, so I paid thousands for a sleep study that uncovered nothing. During the day, I bought wine, whiskey, cigarettes when I wanted to relieve the gray; I stopped when I realized that drinking alone made me cry. 

Insomnia begets insomnia. You fail to sleep; your anxiety over not sleeping amplifies your stress. Early meetings? Papers to grade? First dates? Everything feels Sisyphean. It’s as if a light without an off switch is ablaze in the hallway of your mind. Your head hurts. Sometimes, you scream and pound the bed with fists and kicks, then cry. You curse a god you do not believe in. You take more sleeping pills. 

Soon, you’ve begun to fear one of the most basic things, sleeping. You even start to dread the thought of your bed. It is not a place of rest; it is where rest cannot happen. 

I learnt the language of the dark hours. Sometimes, the late-night world seemed too quiet, as if you could hear the drip of water beneath the earth, the cries of distant sailors reliving their shipwrecks, the roiling sadness of stars, the heartbeats of other people lying awake and staring at ceilings. It was romantic only at first; soon, it was nightmarish. 

During the day, I bought wine, whiskey, cigarettes when I wanted to relieve the gray; I stopped when I realized that drinking alone made me cry.

When I finally came out as trans and pansexual and moved to New York, where I could be my weird self without fear, my depression and sleeplessness lessened. Unlike Andrea Long Chu, who wrote recently in a somewhat tone-deaf essay that transitioning actually worsened how she felt (even as she still wished to transition), transitioning saved me, flooded me with new joy. It was no panacea; it’s only understandable, really, that trans people should still feel terrible when we have to deal with being fired from jobs for being trans, have to deal with being told we can’t use the bathroom that corresponds with our sense of gender, have to deal with being rejected by family and romantic pursuits ad nauseam, have to deal with a dysphoria about what our bodies sound and look and feel like that may never fully leave, for some of us. 

But I still felt ecstatic, free, as a trans woman, especially in this vast, vibrant city. A small island can be beautiful; it can also hold the melancholy claustrophobia of a cruel village. 

Still, a few months in, I began to feel the familiar gray weight again. Loneliness was the trigger. For a long time, I haven’t been able to tell people without crying what it felt like when my mother said she would disown me, that she found my existence shameful. Or what it felt like when I finally realized I would likely never return to the home I had grown up in. Two times, I considered suicide: before coming out, when life seemed impossible unless I could be my authentic self; and more recently, when all the loneliness and loss flooded into me at once in the wake of a tumultuous breakup, and I was convinced, briefly, I would step in front a train because I felt unloved, isolated, lost in the sands more deeply than ever before. I got help, finally, after the second time. My life transformed, rebloomed. 

The gray rarely appears now, even as I still fear its touch. 

In her final two months, Plath was still prolific—in her posthumous collected poems, Hughes collected 12 poems dated to 1963. While some are tender and sweet, others seem particularly forlorn and fatalistic, like “Child,” in which Plath muses, sadly, that while her child’s “clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing” and though “I want to fill it with color and ducks,” all things “grand and classical,” the eyes instead see and show “this troublous / Wringing of hands, this dark / Ceiling without star.” 

Weeks before her death, in a move Hughes would later describe as “obviously an anticipation of death,” Plath revised “Sheep in Fog,” a poem from December, 1962, so that the final stanza imagined “a heaven / Starless and fatherless, a dark water,” rather than the more cherubic, if saccharine, image in the original draft, where the last stanza referred to “Patriarchs till now immobile in heavenly wools row off as stones or clouds with the faces of babies.” Here was a vision of a lightless afterlife bereft of any father—either her own or some Abrahamic god—in which all she could do was wait, without help or hope, for the candle-darkening touch of an exterminating angel. The revision, as Hughes would write, was an “omen” of her own end. 

Still, my favorite poem of hers, the earlier “Lady Lazarus,” manages to conjure both sides of Plath, the death-dancer and the death-defier. “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air,” the narrator concludes Plath’s poem, crafting an image both of phoenix-like resurrection and of fiery feminist fury; she has become a woman no longer beholden to men, a chthonic devourer, like Lilith or Keats’ belle dame sans merci. The poem ends boldly; her halted steps towards death, it suggests, will, like Nietzsche’s infamous dictum, only make her stronger each time she is reborn, and in the end, she has become a liminal figure exceeding even Miltonian rebellion, spurning both God and Lucifer alike. She has staked out her own territory. No deity weaves the threads of her life; she has snatched the spool from the fates’ hands. 

Ironically, of course, the end of this autobiographical poem didn’t apply to Plath. Her final suicide attempt would succeed; her multipronged sense of betrayal by Hughes would devour her, alongside depression. Plath was fire-bright with vitality in “Lady Lazarus” and other poems from this fertile period, but she continually see-sawed between sun and the sunless gray, between life and the false, zombified, somnambulistic semblance of life depression creates. 

Even so, “Lady Lazarus,” like The Bell Jar, showed Plath in a specially nuanced light. So often defined almost solely by her depression and suicidality, Plath was able to strikingly, if ambivalently, affirm life. Near The Bell Jar’s end, Esther’s friend, Joan, kills herself; Esther herself, however, is about to embark on a new, if uncertain, life outside the institution’s maw. Had Plath survived and published her other novels, it’s possible The Bell Jar would hold a diminished importance in her oeuvre, read so frequently as it is against her death. But The Bell Jar has lasted for other reasons; its portrayal of the undiscriminating suddenness of depression, the way the gray can descend without warning, remains important. The gray sands may never fully leave those of us it swirls around—but if we can escape long enough, we can learn to rework its memory into vivid, vital, astonishing art.


ABOUT
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, Huffington Post, The Toast, Lambda Literary, The Normal School, Small Axe, VIDA, Autostraddle, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and other places. She is working on her first novel.      


First published on Lithub