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How do the authors of 'The Bell Jar' and 'Surfacing' depict madness?

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Introduction

How do the authors of "The Bell Jar" and "Surfacing" depict madness? In Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' and Margaret Atwood's 'Surfacing', the concept of madness is an essential component for the exploration of the novels main characters. However, the two protagonists are shown to be affected, and react, in very different ways, making a considerable difference to the ways these two characters are dealt with. On the one hand there is Plath's Esther, who is shown to be a source of interest to the public, as shown by the articles Joan shows her. Yet the unnamed narrator of 'Surfacing' feels alienated by her friends, who don't understand her at all, and she is left alone to deal with her state of mind. The two novels go very far in their exploration of mental instability, yet the extent of both characters illnesses is debatable; is Esther really ill, or does she feel she needs to suffer in order to gain recognition? In addition to this, the character in Surfacing loses grip on her sanity only momentarily, so how far can it be described as madness? It could just as easily be interpreted as an exploration of herself, a reaction to either her father's death, or the return to her childhood home. The most integral part of both novels is how both protagonists see themselves, their lack of responsibility for themselves, as well as their interpretation of other characters. The notion of superiority and gods plays a significant part in both novels, for as Atwood depicts her character as creating ...read more.

Middle

had earlier taken a packet of the Doctors matches, and decided that if she asked for them back, she would "say I'd thought they were made of candy and had eaten them." This shows how Esther views herself as above her own standards; the rules she imposes on others don't apply to her, and mirrors how she disassociates herself from everyone else. Her entire concept of living in a bell jar is one of the focal points of the novel, and is wholly linked with her illness, for she uses the metaphor of existence in a bell jar to illustrate her state of mind, while at the same time providing a clear message of how she feels separated from society. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Surfacing's unnamed protagonist, who from the beginning portrays her feelings of detachment from her peers- "either the three of them are in the wrong place, or I am." Although she doesn't hold her peers in particularly high regard, she does not see them as her equals, as shown by her referring to David as "an imposter, a pastiche, layers of political handbills" with distain, viewing him as indecisive and fake. Not only this but Anna's obsession with make-up, and her fear of being seen without it is a stark contrast to the narrators reversal to her basic form. The 'madness' of both characters is most simply depicted through their feelings of confinement, for the two of them both seem to be separated from the social order of their group. ...read more.

Conclusion

Therefore it could be argued that the narrator wasn't in fact mad, but was simply reacting to the stress she felt from the rest of the group, coupled with the discovery of her father's body. Another factor to this is the reliability of the narrators, for Esther is precise in her narrative; she is able to recollect her entire drama coherently, integrating passages of past experiences fluently. The memories she brings up are relevant, and are all remembered in the same tone, whereas the protagonist in 'Surfacing' For both novels, madness is a central theme which defines both the direction and tone of the novels. In Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar', madness is illustrated most strongly through Esther's perception of herself- she seems to create an idea of what she is so easily, yet simultaneously struggling with choosing a future for herself. The simple fact that Esther is a young woman with very little life experience means that the novel develops into an alternate coming of age story, which simply heightens the expectation that it is likely to contain angst and personal complications. In contrast to this, 'Surfacing' is introduced as a search for a missing father; the initial focus is not on the protagonists state of mind, more the relationship between her and Joe, and her memories of home. Therefore the issue of madness is conveyed as more deviant than it is depicted in Esther's situation. However, whereas 'Surfacing' provides a more substantial meaning for the mental deterioration of its main character in her father's death, in 'The Bell Jar' there seems little reason for Esther's depression. 2583 words ?? ?? ?? ?? Alexandra Gaunt English Literature Coursework ...read more.

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