August 5th, 2011 / 8:57 am
Craft Notes & Random

House Wife Blues: Plath, The Bell Jar, and Writerly Neuroses

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I were out walking the dog, and I was feeling shitty about work as usual. Rounding the corner where the Bay meets the roadway, sun setting pinkly, I blurted out, “Sometimes I just wish I could be a housewife.” He looked at me and said, “Me too.”

That was the end of it. Which pissed me off even more. I wanted to have a legitimate conversation about what it means to be a housewife (which, by the way, I could never be in the 19050s sense), the fact that it’s not even an option anymore for most women. We’re worker bees now, too. It’s only fair. If I want to stay home, which I kind of do, I have to figure out a way to pull in enough income to pay the mortgage on the house I bought all by myself. I have to be able to pull my weight. Not to mention take care of the dogs, do the laundry, make dinners–all because I’m home, which somehow still means, not doing anything at all. My boyfriend would  never say or think these things, by the way, but I would. I struggle with these concepts because I would feel guilty if I had the luxury to write. As if writing isn’t work. Writing poetry isn’t work, it’s what you do in your spare time.

In her essay “The Bell Jar at 40,” Emily Gould writes of Sylvia Plath:

Of course not everyone was as sensitive as Plath was, and not everyone was such a compulsive overachiever. Trying to be all things to all people, especially if two of those things are “creative genius” and “mother,” still seems like a recipe for unhappiness, if not certain death. While I do think of Plath as a feminist icon, I don’t think it’s necessary to essentialize her in the way the feminists who chipped “Hughes” off her gravestone did. Those feminists want Plath to be a victim—specifically, a victim of Hughes and America’s repressive 1950s perfect-housewife culture. And Plath was a victim: a victim of not being able to see any situation she was in clearly. She wanted very badly to live in a reality where she was a good, kind person who was also a good mother, but that part of her was always fighting with being a very selfish person who wanted to devote time and resources to her work. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to want—it’s just not compatible with being a pretty, popular girl who is nice to everyone all the time. Instead of acknowledging this impossibility, Plath tried to keep both sides of herself going until the whole precarious enterprise broke down. It broke down in New York, and then it broke down again, forever, ten years later in London.

This business of trying to be all things to all people is a taxing and asinine endeavor. I’ve spent a good many years doing it. A few years ago, I had an experience in which I woke up in the middle of the night and saw myself staring at myself from across the room. Which sounds crazy, but really it was just my brain actualizing the struggle, to use Gould’s language, to keep both sides of myself going. Plath didn’t have much choice, I believe, even if she did. Society was pretty clear about what was expected of her and sort of let her bleed out, both literally and figuratively, because she was such a talent–though in the end she managed to deny and defy the world in the ultimate way.

Maybe, as a woman born in the late-70s, I was raised to believe that I literally could and should do everything (though it would be better to marry a doctor): be selfless and kind (barf!), clean the house, cook the meals, take care of rugrats, have a meaningful career, be sexual and sensual, stay in good shape, have creative outlets, etc. etc. (Maybe men have been raised the same way, but I’m no man.) In a way, Plath epitomizes the feminine compulsive overachiever. Part societal expectation, part genuine psychosis, it was those disparate pieces of herself that she never managed to merge and that sent her reeling toward the oven. I’m not going to be good at anything anymore is what she could have been saying. Being an all-around success became a burden.

My brother wrote to me the other day, “We’re neurotic. That’s part of our allure,” which made me nervous (ha!) that I was veering dangerously close to some writerly stereotype, that I like so many others have worshipped at the Altar of Plath et al. I don’t believe neuroses are an inevitable part of being a writer. I think we cultivate and love our neuroses because of the drama and interest they create for us. As many doomed writers do, Plath hit a crossroads in her life as a writer/mother/wife/teacher. She was going to either have to change and grow fundamentally (the common crisis of hitting 30) or she was going to have to stop the madness altogether–but perhaps mental illness didn’t give her the luxury to choose sanity. I’m talking more about me here than Plath.

For a few years before and after I turned 30, I wasn’t sure which way I’d go (in my case, sane or batshit crazy), but I knew I could not go on in the same trajectory; I couldn’t write the same poems or think the same obsessive dark thoughts or live in the imaginary loop I’d created. I am not mentally ill,  but I was up against a wall and likely will be again, and here’s the thing: It was never, will never be writing that dooms me or saves me. It’s just me.

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  1. Clarence L'inspecteur

      Don’t know if it ever crossed your path, but there’s this beautiful little book about the struggles of family life by one of the most underrated American writers, Shirley Jackson: “Life Among the Savages.” I think it connects in strange and fascinating ways to Plath’s life and to your interrogations. 

  2. christine hamm

      I’m doing part of my diss on Plath, and I think you do a good job describing part of her struggle.  But I think there were other important pieces — such as the fact that she was quite poor and constantly struggling to get money.  Unlike the typical housewife, she had a series of jobs — teaching and working in a mental hospital, also, constantly hustling to get writing grants for herself and her husband.  She was also severely mentally ill — most biographers agree that she was bipolar and sometimes hallucinated when her illness was at its worst.  I’ve never understood seeing her as a feminist icon — sure, she recognized and (sometimes) fought against many of the ridiculous ideals for women back then, but I just don’t see suicide as a feminist act.  Her Husband, by Middlebrook, is one of my favorite books about her life.

  3. alexisorgera

      I think you’re right, that Plath was legitimately mentally ill. She wasn’t “just neurotic.” I neglected that in my post and then felt guilty about neglecting it. I don’t think she had the luxury of making the choice to be sane. Maybe I’m going to go back and revise it.

  4. alexisorgera

      I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  5. deadgod

      I’d be surprised if you didn’t know her story The Lottery.

  6. MFBomb
  7. alexisorgera

      yeah. i know it, of course. doesn’t everyone in america read The Lottery in high school? that said, it’s a damn good story.

  8. christine hamm

      I think what a lot of your post discusses is the Plath mythology — not what really happened, but I think it’s valid to explore that mythology — it’s interesting in its own right.  It might actually be more interesting than the reality, simply because these myths say so much about our culture and perceptions about women and artists.

  9. alexisorgera

      say more.

  10. deadgod

      I think the ‘feminist icon’ stuff has more to do with disgust at the heavy, “patriarchal”, tom-cat hand of Hughes than with Plath seeing herself as an Hippolyta. 

      It’s also true that Plath’s story of frustration and boredom (at talents and ingenuity sponged up by wit-smothering toil) and inner conflict (at wanting to succeed in a role that’s hard to reconcile with worldly or artistic ambition)–that’s the context of the liberation narrative of Friedan, Abzug – probably many of the moms and grandmothers and great-grandmothers of people who are reading this blogicle.  The mental illness(es), the terrible death, and Hughes’s story altogether:  central casting.

      For me, The Bell Jar is dull, and the Colossus poems are, eh, well-crafted but only spark intermittently.

      The Ariel poems are something else:  better poetry than anything I’ve read by, say, Lowell.  The facts around their composition decorate a pathetic scene, but push all that away – if one can! – and the hammer-strikes of Ariel are grief and rage speaking directly through an intelligent prosody unmeddled by classroom concerns.  I think people might be intimidated to say they find the Ariel poems to be as good as they ‘sound’ because these poems come shrouded in madwoman miasma, but the violent effect of the poems is, for me, not the result of sensitivity to “neurosis”, but rather to ‘the right words in the right order’.

  11. captain obvious
  12. deadgod

      I think it’s a great story.  As a gateway, it’s a cliche and a gateway cliche, but, as you suggest, the startling clarity of the telling and the sucker-punch of the conclusion are perfectly achieved.  People might feel, ‘oh, that got me when I was newish to reading’, but I’d bet that the story holds up with most readers regardless of any middle-aged lit-weariness.

  13. Brian McElmurry

      This was great. I think guys have the same issues in ways also. I’m 33, have a gf who wants marriage/family, and I desire this too, but at the same time have this selfish desire to remain single and unattached. Mostly because working 40 hrs and being in a relationship takes a significant amout of time, so if I was to become a father, my time for reading/writing would be significantly less. I want to be the strong male figure with a family and a solitary person who can do what I want when I want. I’ve considered that following either path could lead to mental breakdown. Seems fucked either way sometimes. Sorry if this is emo.

  14. tortietabbie

      I’m hoping my partner gets a raise so I can quit my job and let him support me. Though I’m looking for more of a drinking and writing lifestyle than cooking and cleaning (gross). He seems game enough. Fingers crossed!

  15. Jackson Nieuwland

      I agree that guys have the same issues. I feel like I’m struggling with them too, and I’m still a youngin. You didn’t come across as emo bro. It seems like we all believe that we can have it all

  16. Amber

      Alexis, I think we’re about the same age, and I find myself having very similar conflicting thoughts. I was raised, like you, in the era of Free to Be You and Me, where women were being encouraged to do it all, but more on the overachieving side of the spectrum. I think my reaction was sort of to start underachieving in all things domestic at some point, and as weird as it sounds, that’s been my sanity. It’s given me space to write and act and perform and still have a full-time job. I’m not very good at the things a woman is supposed to be good at if she stays at home (cleaning, cooking, etc) and my husband does most of those things, so if anyone were to stay home it would be him. But there’s still a selfish (tiny) part of me that seems to think that at some point I should be able to stop working because I am a women–and then I start thinking about not so much Plath as Revolutionary Road, and I shudder and vow never never to do that. Even though it’s not like domestic life would be like that, or my husband, or anything. The shudder comes from the same part of my brain that intentionally misreads Plath as being trapped by domestic life, rather than trying to be perfect in her own time. It’s some New Wave feminist feeling drilled in by my mom and others in my early years, I can only think…I guess when I have kids I’ll make use of that shudder to remind me it’s okay not to be perfect, to remind me to keep my day job.

  17. alexisorgera

      Amber-thanks for that. I have been “failing on purpose” lately just to combat the over-achiever syndrome. I’m traditionally really good at “typical housewife” stuff, but I’m forcing myself to 1. not cook all the time and 2. let things get messy. It’s great and you realized–what the hell was I getting so stressed about? I like the conclusion you come to, and it’s one we should all take to heart. It’s okay (and probably even preferable in the end) to not be perfect. It’s okay to fail here and there. It’s okay to be mean sometimes. It’s certainly okay and necessary to be selfish. I can’t tell you how many times growing up I heard that bullshit about being selfless and giving to everyone else but myself. Bullshit.

  18. alexisorgera

      Good to hear the guy perspective. I was pretty sure that was the case, just from my own experience of the guys around me.