Comparing the Treatment of Madness in The Bell Jar and The Yellow Wallp

Treatment of Madness in The Bell Jar and The Yellow Wallpaper Â

Mental illness and madness is a theme often explored in literature and the range of texts exploring these is tremendously varied. Various factors can threaten a character’s sanity, ranging from traumatic events which trigger a decline to pressure from more vast, impersonal sources. Generally speaking, writers have tried to show that most threats to sanity comprise a combination of long-term and short-term factors – the burning of the library in Mervyn Peake’s novel ‘Titus Groan’ precipitated Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness, but a longer term problem can be discerned in the weight of tradition which caused him to worry ‘that with him the line of Groan should perish’. Such interplay between the acute and the chronic is, it would seem, a matter of agreement between authors who explored this issue. The manner in which characters respond to these threats is not. In some works the threatened character succeeds in becoming empowered – they find a way to maintain themselves and emerge from the ordeal undefeated, if not unbowed. Esther Greenwood as portrayed in Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’ is one such character, although the question always remains whether such a victory is a permanent solution. In many other works the only option for the characters is escape. This may be an escape from reality as described in Roald Dahl’s short story ‘Georgy Porgy’. It may be an escape from self-awareness as shown in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. The ultimate escape is self-destruction – Sepulchrave’s death in ‘Titus Groan’ and Sylvia Plath’s real-life suicide in 1963 (barely three weeks after ‘The Bell Jar’ was published) ca…

…emonstrates throughout the first half of the novel that Greenwood is increasingly withdrawing from herself, with her failure to identify with her reflection in a mirror (“The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian” – she uses no words to suggest that “the face in the mirror” is herself, and it is only from context that the reader knows this at all) being symbolic of this. The first half of the Bell Jar, then, demonstrates that Esther Greenwood’s initial responses to the pressures threatening her sanity are firstly to lose her emotional link to the world, and secondly to lose this link within herself. Such a response only lead to further problems which the author explores in the rest of the novel, and it is a point worth noting that in many cases the defences that can be useful at first in response to a threat can end up as part of the problem itself.



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