Narrative Voice in the Bell Jar

L. P. Hartley and Sylvia Plath both use the first person narrative to evoke a sense of tragedy for their protagonists, however, with Leo, Hartley uses the first person narrative to allow the reader to understand the unfortunate event in the life of twelve year old Leo. Some may say that the first person narration of Leo is both more personal and detailed than that of Esther. The reader sees the sophisticated world of Brandham Hall, contrasted with the closeness of Leo’s relationship with his mother, from Leo’s perspective.
On the other hand, in The Bell-Jar the reader’s understanding of Esther’s life is limited by the cold and detached first person narrative, due to her descent into depression. It could be said that Esther is presented as repressing her emotions, yet her opinionated ways lead to her alienation. This makes her unreliable as the reader experiences the narrator’s life from her dysfunctional perspective. This makes it hard for the reader to connect to Esther, therefore limiting our empathy with her tragedy. In contrast, the reader sympathises with Leo as we see his youth and enthusiasm for life being destroyed, which enhances the tragedy.
It could be said that Plath’s use of a simile to portray incongruity foreshadows Esther’s growing fear of “the bell-jar”. At the start of the novel, “The cadaver’s head, floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast”. The reader is shocked due to the tragic inappropriateness of the cadaver’s head being connected to the mundane image of eggs and bacon. This dark humour, which arises from the absurdity of the two objects, could be perceived as foreshadowing the tragedy to come, due to Esther’s dysfunctional view of life.

The humorous tone of the simile is increased as the narrator does not seem traumatized by such a shocking image being associated with an everyday object. It could therefore be argued that this reduces the tragic effect from the situation. However, the cadaver’s head is always following her “on a string, like some black, nose less balloon stinking of vinegar” which could be argued is dragging her down. This macabre humour of the “nose less balloon” contrasts with the tragic tone of the novel and perhaps reduces our sense of Esther’s misfortune.
The balloon could represent a “bell-jar” hanging over Esther’s life, always close enough to come down on Esther and never going to disappear. However, it could be argued that if Esther really wanted to, she could let go of the balloon and therefore release her connections with the bell jar, which may take the tragedy with it. The balloon could portray that the tragedy, strangeness and “the bell-Jar” is Esther’s own doing, as for a balloon to come down, all one has to do is pull, so this could be a metaphor for Esther’s life as a whole, which is tragic as we feel compassion for the young girl starring down the barrel of depression.
Furthermore, the “cadaverous face” is mentioned on the last page of the novel. This structural feature, which Plath would have no doubt intended, indicates that the cadaver has followed her all her life, tragically limiting her chances of being “normal” which shows that Esther may never get out of the “bell-jar”, even when there is a little hope at the end of the novel.

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