A Comparison of Original Work to Film Version of Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

The following is an edited version of the original Posted on April 10, 2008

A Comparison of Sylvia Plath’s Original Work: The Bell Jar, Versus the Film Version: : 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).

Bibliography:

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.

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A Comparison between the Film, The Color Purple, and Alice Walker’s Original Work

By Trudy A. Martinez

The film, The Color Purple, and Alice Walker’s original work begins with a suppressive tone. The utterance: “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” consummates the suppressive tone. This declaration serves to qualify the guilt and shame Celie feels. Walker’s qualification of Celie’s feelings is instant, whereas the film suffers. In Celie’s first letter, when she addresses God, she writes “I am.” Then she crosses out these words and proceeds with “I have always been a good girl.” Her feelings of shame and guilt surface by way of her indecisive expression of the language. Even though Celie is not responsible for what happens because she has no control over her situation, nevertheless, she feels guilty for what her daddy forces upon her. Fear and ignorance keep her quiet, enduring her dying mother’s screams and cusses. Conversely, the film does not bestow the same impact or even make clear Celie’s personal dilemma.

The beauty of the color of purple in the first sequence as two young girls are seen happily singing and playing in a field of tall purple flowers masks Celie’s dilemma. The scene merely emphasizes the closeness of two young sisters, leaving questions concerning Celie’s pregnant condition unanswered. Consequently, the subtleness of the opening sequence renders the incident of rape exposed by Celie’s first letter to God as inconsequential. When she is seen giving birth to the baby with her young sister assisting, her father grows impatient and scorns her for taking so long.

Treating Celie with impatience and regarding her as unworthy of consideration seriously hampers her progress as a person. The actions of the father and later Mr._______ repress Celie and turn into the main hindrance to her happiness. An impatient tone exercises power over her. Celia’s ignorance and fear renders her powerless against abuse. She grows into an acceptance of her fate because she is made to feel ignorant, ugly, inferior, and unworthy of consideration; and therefore, she became a prime candidate for male domination.

While Celie is kept under male dominance, she works hard to ensure Nettie’s independence. Nettie does not feel Celie is ignorant. Nettie teaches her sister everything she learns and Celie promises Nettie she will take care of her with God’s help. In the original work, education is the key to Nettie’s independence. Later, education becomes the key to Celie’s independence as well.

In the film however, education is not an issue until after Nettie comes to live with Celie and Mr.______. When a clue arises that Mr. _______ is about to make a move on Nettie, education becomes significant because Celie needs to be able to read and write to communicate with Nettie if they are forced to separate. Celie’s life is an education process in itself. As she meets new people, she learns from them.

Celie learns from Sofia love has strength and the capability of conquering the opposition. Sofia’s vitality exposes the weakness of Mr.______- She stands her ground against him and gives Harpo the courage to stand up for himself. Sofia’s non acceptance of male dominance serves to contrast Celie’s acceptance of her inferior slave-like position. Shug Avery, Albert’s mistress, helps Celie to gain the self-confidence she lacks by encouraging her to make difficult choices while Shug serves as a living example to her. Shug says what she wants and does what she wants without fear of reprisal because she insists on her own right to pleasure. Her reason for not marrying Albert, even though she loves him, is because “he be week”.
When Celie learns through Sofia and Shug that Albert is a weak person, she does not take action to eradicate her circumstances until she learns Mr.______ took away years of joy from her life by keeping her sister’s letters from her. This spiteful action leaves Celie with the courage to speak out and act on her own behalf. As she learns from life’s experiences, she allows herself to grow and educates herself to life itself. Ironically, after her stepfather’s death, Celie gains financial freedom as well as freedom from male dominance.

Freedom from male dominance in the original work is stressed through a learning process of both Albert and Celie, this is apparent through Albert’s acceptance of Celie as a person and his acceptance of learning the backwardness of his ways as they sit together “sewing, and talking, and smoking.” The film, on the other hand, did not portray this joint learning aspect. Instead, Mr.______ is seen in the field at a distance walking a mule, a symbol of stubbornness that depicts an unwillingness to change.