Imagining the mad woman: applying concepts of the narrative imagination, psychoanalytic and feminist theory to "The bell jar" and selected poems by Sylvia Plath
In this dissertation, several aspects and processes of the female and melancholic psyche are discussed in terms of Sylvia Plath’s life and work. The two pivotal theoretical schools which are thus of interest are psychoanalysis and feminism. In addition, there is another conceptual framework that is of importance to this study, namely American moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s notion of the narrative imagination and its role in liberal education. However, this theory is not discussed in detail but rather provides the broader framework for the dissertation; setting the tone for the discussions as it were. While this particular analysis is thus by no means comprehensive or complete, the aim is for the reader to actively apply his/her narrative imagination in order to more fully grasp the internal world and external circumstances of the female figures in Plath’s work and thereby grasp some of Plath’s psychical processes (as opposed to attempting a holistic grasp on Plath’s psyche). In terms of psychoanalysis, the various influences that can potentially impact (often negatively) the human psyche are considered. The focus is mostly on the female psyche, and therefore the analysis concentrates specifically on the following: the influence of the Electra/Oedipus complex on the girl/woman’s relationship with the father figure (both her actual father and the symbolic order which functions as a father in patriarchal society) and subsequently with her sexual/romantic partners; the girl/woman’s intense and ambivalent relationship with the mother figure (as the primal love-object and as the model of ideal femininity); and the reciprocal dynamic which exists between these relationships and the girl/woman’s psyche and life. The influence and incarnation of various other psychoanalytic notions are also considered; such as the ideal ego, the divided self and the masochistic ego. Furthermore, the characteristics and possible effects of melancholia and the deathdrive are examined, particularly in terms of suicide as an act of self-affirmation. In so far as it is possible and plausible, these psychoanalytic notions are related to Plath’s work and, by inference, to certain aspects of her life. With regards to feminist theory, theorists who also employ a psychoanalytic stance (such as the so-called “French feminists” Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva) with regards to the specific position of the female figure in patriarchal society were examined. As such, the thoughts of several well-known and lesser known feminist theorists (for example, Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell) are discussed and applied. Of particular importance is patriarchal society’s definition of womanhood and the conflicts which women experience because of this, specifically within the unique cultural setting of 1950s America. Therefore, the influences of the symbolic order in numerous of its figurations are examined and how they can silence women, specifically the female writer. Other central concepts in reaching a deeper understanding of Plath’s work and some of the psychical aspects she probes therewith include: the women’s role as commodity and fetish object, the mother figure’s role in perpetuating patriarchal pressure on her daughter, the female and especially the maternal body as embodiment of the abject, and conversely the way in which writing her body can offer the woman a subjective affirmation in the form of écriture féminine.