Sylvia Plath and the Importance of Real Presence

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I am not Dodo Conway. Perhaps no one is, she’s a fictional character after all. Dodo appears in Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, several chapters in.

‘A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach […] wheeling an old black baby carriage down the street.  Two or three small children of various sizes, all pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees, wobbled along in the shadow of her skirts. A serene, almost religious smile lit up the woman’s face. Her head tilted happily back, like a sparrow egg perched on a duck egg, she smiled into the sun.

I first read these lines as a secularly raised, unbaptized seventeen-year-old, and thought nothing of the significance of what followed.

‘Dodo Conway was a Catholic,’ Plath writes, ‘who had […] married an architect who […] was also a Catholic.  They had a big, rambling house up the street from us, set behind a morbid facade of pine trees, and surrounded by scooters, tricycles, doll carriages, toy fire trucks, baseball bats, badminton nets, croquet wickets, hamster cages and cocker spaniel puppies – the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood.’

Catholicism in The Bell Jar

Upon a recent rereading of Plath’s novel, I noticed its concern with Catholicism throughout – something I hadn’t picked up on on the first reading, and something I’ve not heard many people associate Plath, who was raised by a lapsed Catholic-turned-Unitarian, with. Esther, the novel’s protagonist, talks about wishing she were a Catholic, about Massachusetts being full of Catholics, and of course, about Dodo and her growing family in her big, suburban house.

Dodo is the face of the Baby Boom. She’s the opposite of Esther, who struggles existentially and in her relationship to womanhood and sexuality. Dodo has six children, a seventh on the way, and that ‘almost religious smile’ lighting up her face. Esther attempts suicide several times in the book and describes the feeling of living life as though standing within a bell jar.

As I reread it, I thought to myself: yes, I converted. Yes, I had two children in the first two years of my marriage. But I am still not Dodo. I feel as though I know Dodos – millennial Dodos – who have that air of serenity and acceptance to them, who have big, joyous, messy families, stay-at-home mothers who have sacrificed an endless list of freedoms in order to raise their children in a wholesome, Christian home. No doubt this superficial image covers all manner of struggles behind closed doors, but still, even superficially, I am not, will probably never be, Dodo Conway.

Yet Path Killed Herself

Plath wrote this novel about being young and childless and alienated after she’d had her children after she’d ‘got better’, as the autobiographical first chapters read. The natural thing to think is that she recovered and was able to narrate hear mental health struggles from a position of clarity.  Yet she killed herself just two weeks after the publication of The Bell Jar.

The truth is when I converted I hoped I might go from being Esther to becoming Dodo – that religious sun-lit smile must be the product of faith, I told myself, of the Sacraments, of daily Mass attendance, of infinite Rosaries. And yet, even when I am praying and attending Mass daily, I never feel placid – I never find the peace I hoped would come with my conversion. Even as a Christian mother, as a happily married spouse, the bell jar is never truly lifted.

By the Way of Hell

Some people must go to God ‘by the way of hell’ I read this Lent. The words are Hadewijch’s, a thirteenth-century mystic. Perhaps this feeling of alienation runs deeper than the politics of baby boomers and millennials: ‘these people,’ Hadewijch writes, ‘can neither believe nor hope that they would ever be able to content Love in her substantial being. They live in the land of debt, and reason penetrates all their veins and invites them to lift themselves up to this divine self-offering and to the height of men who are beloved. They cannot believe what they feel: thus God stirs in them interiorly a madness without hope.’

I got myself to Confession. ‘I don’t feel as though I love God,’ I said.

‘You are talking about the love of emotion, of feeling, of sensation,’ the priest said. ‘This is not within our control. What you control is what you do, not how you feel. So stay calm.’ So which is it? Not believing what I feel, or not feeling what I believe? I felt as though I didn’t believe nor feel anything. ‘I believe in Christ because it’s unimaginable to me that he isn’t real. I believe it like I believe everything I believe, that the sky is blue, that I’m a woman living in a country called Italy, that I have two children. But this belief is nothing, it’s very little to hold onto.’ ‘What more do you want?’ the Priest asked, ‘be calm.’

I wasn’t calm, but I felt some short-lived relief after I left Confession, as I often do. It’s okay that I’m not calm. It’s okay that I don’t feel full of trust that I’m doing the right thing, that I don’t feel close to God, that I don’t feel happy, that I don’t feel fulfilled, that I feel alienated and a need to escape life itself. It’s ok that I live inside a bell jar, too.

Praying for Plath’s Soul

I started to pray for Plath’s soul. I felt convinced that someone who had been capable of such beautiful words could not be damned for their, admittedly horrific, actions. I could feel her suffering, the suffocation she felt under that bell jar, and I struggled to convey the despair that would bring her to end her own life. ‘I am full of God,’ she’d said to her husband Ted Hughes in the last weeks of her life of atheism, ‘I have seen God, and he keeps picking me up.’ What had she meant?

My own conversion felt like a kind of mental breakdown. In the aftermath of the grief of my mother’s death, while I was a young child, I struggled with nihilism and, eventually, was rescued by the person of Christ. A decade later, my Christian friend said: ‘the difference between me and you is that you believe that Christ was a real person, whereas I can’t bring myself to conclusively believe that.’ My other friend interjected: ‘I don’t think that particularly matters, does it?’ he asked me. I thought about it. I was pretty sure all the suicidal ideation I battled with throughout my life would have turned into action had it not been for the theology of the Incarnation. I had read that there was a strong link between absent parents and suicidal thoughts. Plath’s own father had died when she had been eight years old.

The Real Presence Matters

‘Yes, it matters,’ I said. Real physical presence matters. It’s maybe all that matters. Not just Christ’s, everyone’s. This last thought was confusing but I felt there was a seed of truth to it.

‘I type this sentence with two hands,’ Julia Yost writes in an article about mothers regretting their decision to have children. ‘After another day of cobbling together ten minutes here, ninety seconds there, five seconds there, two seconds there, I am free to work until midnight because my son is sleeping. Like most mothers, perhaps, I both wish that he would never wake and hope that he will never die. I am not distressed by the dissonance, for it does not really matter what I feel. He’s here. He’s here.’ Yost knows a mother’s feelings about a child’s existence are by the by, as the priest in Confession said to me, your actions are what counts, that is what loving others is, not how you feel about them.

Mental Breakdown

When I read Yost’s words I thought: it sounds like she’s not having a mental breakdown because she’s ‘not distressed by the dissonance.’ It sounds like she can, as the priest ordered me to do, echoing the Lord’s commandment not to worry, ‘be calm.’ It sounds like she is capable of responding to the fact that her son is here, is here. Am I?

I am not Dodo Conway. I’m a little Esther Greenwood, maybe, but not quite, either. When I read Plath’s words on St Therese of Lisieux I felt compelled to pray for her yet again.  ‘It’s a hell of a responsibility,’ Plath writes, ‘to be yourself. It’s much easier […] to give your soul to God […] and say: the one thing I fear is doing my own will. Do it for me, God.’

Easier. A hell of a responsibility. These words haunted me long after I read them.

I’ve always felt as though life is easier for some people than for others, and I count myself in the latter grouping. I was hoping to move groups when I converted. I believed the Lord when He spoke the words in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.

I believed Him.

And now here I am, burdened, struggling through Lent, identifying with the alienated protagonist of a novel penned by a suicidal mother whose own son went on to take his own life. I feel betrayed, I go to Confess it, and I am told: be calm. I will forever be wrestling with God, it seems.

It’s not easy to make myself an instrument of God’s will. Perhaps it is for some people, perhaps it was for St Therese, perhaps Plath was right about that—I don’t know. But I wanted to speak to Plath myself, Esther-to-Esther: there is nothing easy about giving your soul to God. There is nothing easy about escaping the hell of the false responsibility to relentlessly be ‘yourself’ with no appeal to God as a real part of that self.

I don’t know what that means, to give your soul to God, and, it seems, neither does anyone else, not conclusively, not my priest, not Dodo, not anyone – they have been in discussion about how and where and when and what that entails for millennia. It’s not an easy thing to undertake.

And then, when you ask God to do things for you, when you kneel in prayer, relatively easy to do perhaps, (although it always feels like a huge struggle, like a farce almost, for me) even then– God doesn’t lift the bell jar. The bell jar, if anything, becomes more evident, the further down you go on the path of following the Lord. The more you try to give your soul to God, the more disorientating it can be to be in this world and not in the next. To live in spite of yourself, it is not easy, but it is the only way out of hell. I am, I am, I am Plath writes out Esther’s heartbeat. Surely God’s own name being spoken incessantly at the core of her anatomy: I am that I am.

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3 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath and the Importance of Real Presence”

  1. Sofia A, Look around and look in the mirror. There is now only one Sofia like you. Never been one before, never will be another. You are unique for all eternity. Each good act you do, each time you decide to align your will with God’s will, each time to choose, freely, to do good, you bring into existence a good that no one else can bring into existence. And when your uniquely made good is directed to or benefits another person, that is a good for her or him that no one else in the universe can do for him or her. Also, to me a mystery, which only a mother can begin to understand, you and God and your husband have loved into existence your children each of whom is an infinite good. You give your soul to God in all this unique Sofia A good that you do. Deo Gratias! Guy McClung, Texas

  2. Your essay touched me today. I think we may share the belief that for some, there is no final life resolution here that solves everything. It becomes part of how we live. Maybe prayer about the Passion helps here – especially under the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. This repeated prayer and contemplation on a twice weekly basis becomes the way of things. Somehow the Son as himself was able to say yes to the Father when his death was theoretical (not yet) – before he was actually in danger of death in the garden. Then he was able to continue to say yes as he traveled the way of the Passion. Dwelling in the moment by moment moves of Christ during that time, wondering and praying on Christ’s emotional state and his assent in those moments, may help. There is no place that Christ has not been for you – not us – you. In depths of difficulty, it has helped me to imagine my arriving in those depths and to my surprise finding him there, sitting with his face down, thinking or waiting, for me. He looks up and sees me and smiles.

  3. Pingback: VVEDNESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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