The Person in the Picture: The Image and the Self of Esther Greenwood
Throughout The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood is photographed many times. Sometimes the act of being photographed is equated with the objectification of Esther, which is to say, the photographer takes away Esther’s personhood and she becomes an object in the photograph. Other times, being photographed is equated with the lack of understanding that Esther experiences from others. When Esther poses for photographs and sees photographs of herself, the camera makes Esther a stranger to herself. Esther struggles to recognize who she is when confronted with images of herself. In this way, the camera reduces Esther from a self to an image, onto which other people project their understandings and expectations of her. Even in the mirror Esther does not recognize herself, a result of her internalization of the camera lens and the eye of the outsider that it represents. After her suicide attempt, she comes to see the image in the mirror not as a reflection, but as a picture, not recognizing herself in the reflected image. When Esther looks into the mirror in the hospital, she sees herself not as a self, a complete, multifaceted person, but as an image, upon which is imposed the desires and views of others. She must break the mirror to escape the camera that she has internalized. The recurring motif of the camera and the picture is a part of Esther’s mental illness, representing her struggle with the images that everyone else has of her, and it is only when she is able to break the mirror that holds her internalized image that she can begin the process of healing and coming to terms with her self.
The first photograph of Esther that appears in the text is part of a memory that occurs to her as Buddy Willard undresses in front of her:
But undressing in front of Buddy suddenly appealed to me about as much as having my Posture Picture taken at college, where you have to stand stark naked in front of a camera, knowing all the time that a picture of you stark naked, both full view and side view, is going into the college gym files to be marked A B C or D depending on how straight you are. (Plath 65)
Esther is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being naked in front of Buddy Willard. She compares the situations by tying a moment that, under other circumstances, might have been enjoyable for all involved, to one of medical sterility. She describes herself as “stark naked” repeatedly, a phrase that implies the coldness and harshness of the environment surrounding her, and uses a general “you” to universalize the uncomfortable feeling of being naked in front of strangers, who will then categorise the body in the image without any thought given to the person inhabiting the body. Here, Plath writes both these moments of nakedness as moments where Esther is reduced to a body and an object in the eyes of the viewer.
In the lead-up to this paragraph, Buddy has undressed himself, and is now expecting that Esther do the same. He says: “I think you ought to get used to me like this [….] Now let me see you” (Plath 65). It is clear that Buddy feels he is owed Esther’s naked body, whether by rule of reciprocation or because he expects that they will end up married. The college obliges Esther to be naked on the basis of her relationship with the establishment (she has to have her Posture Picture taken for their gym files), Buddy on the basis of her relationship with him. Buddy Willard is the college camera here, and the camera is Buddy Willard. They both do the same thing to Esther; they take the person of Esther and reduce her to her body. By linking Buddy to the camera lens, Plath sets up the camera as a method of objectifying Esther and reducing her to one part of herself.
Buddy Willard doesn’t actually photograph Esther. However, she is photographed just before she leaves New York, for a spread in the magazine:
When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know.
“Oh sure you know,” the photographer said.
“She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be a poet.”
Then they scouted around for something for me to hold. (Plath 97)
Esther doesn’t actually speak in this passage. Instead she narrates her own act of speaking. Meanwhile, the others, Jay Cee and the photographer, actually speak. This gives a sense that they are speaking over Esther, as they take over the act of defining what Esther wants to do. Plath has tied the act of photographing Esther with the act of overtaking her ability to speak for herself. There is a reason Plath gives the definition of Esther’s goal to Jay Cee; Jay Cee sees Esther not as a finished or complete person, just as someone who has not yet achieved her goals: “‘Of course, you have another year at college yet,’ Jay Cee went on a little more mildly. ‘What do you have in mind after you graduate?’” (Plath 30). Her view of Esther translates into the photograph. Just as Buddy Willard and the college simplify Esther down to the image of her body, Jay Cee turns her into the image of her goals. The image of Esther that Jay Cee creates here has no room for nuance or depth. It is a photo taken for a spread in a magazine that will feature eleven other girls. The Esther in this photo is defined by a singular want. There is no room in this photograph for her victories, or her self-doubt, or even her writing, the very subject of the goal Jay Cee uses to define her. She is again reduced to a single aspect of herself. This time, instead of a body, Esther is reduced to a goal, but again, the photo simplifies her and takes away her voice.
The final act of the photographer against Esther is not just to define her, but to control her, both emotionally and physically:
The photographer fiddled with his hot white lights. “Show me how happy it makes you to write a poem.” [….] I felt it was very important to keep the line of my mouth level.
“Give us a smile.”
At last, obediently, like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy, my own mouth started to quirk up.
“Hey,” the photographer protested, with sudden foreboding, “you look like you’re going to cry.”
I couldn’t stop myself. (Plath 97-98)
The photographer controls Esther and how she is seen, regardless of how she wants to be seen. Esther doesn’t want to smile in the photo. She feels it is “very important” that she look serious, indicated by the level mouth. But the photographer wants her to smile, and so she has to smile. She is compelled, like “a ventriloquist’s dummy.” Metaphorically, her voice (the individual identity of Esther and how she displays it) is replaced by the voice of the puppeteer photographer. Eventually, he commands and controls her emotions as well as her body. When the photographer says that she looks like she is going to cry, she does. She is unable to control herself, because she has been turned into a “dummy” by the photographer, to be moved and positioned at will in front of the camera, so she can present whatever the person behind the camera wants her too. In short, she is objectified. Because there is no room for the person of Esther within the camera frame, the image of Esther, an image that can be controlled by whoever controls the camera, replaces it.
All three of the images of Esther above are created by the person with whom the act of photography is associated. Esther does not see any of those images herself. She does see an image of herself later, when Joan shows Esther clippings from the newspaper related to her suicide attempt:
The first clipping showed a big, blown-up picture of a girl with black shadowed eyes and black lips spread into a grin. I couldn’t imagine where such a tarty picture had been taken, until I noticed the Bloomingdale ear-rings and the Bloomingdale necklace glinting out of it with bright, white highlights, like imitation stars. (Plath 191)
Esther does not see herself in the photograph in the newspaper clippings detailing her suicide attempt, identifying the subject of the picture as “a girl” instead of “me.” The image is blown up and distorted by the black ink of the newspaper. Instead of telling us about the features of the girl in the photograph, Esther focuses on her eyeshadow and lipstick, both discoloured by the medium of newsprint. This gives the description of the face in the picture an exaggerated, alien feel. Esther is distant enough from the image of this alien girl that she cannot even see the actual features of the face, and does not recognize it even though the article itself later confirms that the image is of her. She doesn’t say “where I took the photo,” an active statement. Instead, she asks “where such a tarty picture had been taken,” a passive statement. She removes herself from the act of being seen in the photograph. This is where her internalizations of the camera and what it represents comes into play. Esther cannot see the person that she is in the photo. Instead, she projects judgements (of herself) on the image, calling it “tarty.” She, like the photographers before her, no longer sees a person in the subject of the photo. Instead, she sees an image of a person that lacks any depth, and is defined by a projected characteristic. She has turned the lens of the camera onto the image of herself, and thus cannot reconcile the person that she is with the image the camera creates.
It is not just in photographs that Esther has trouble seeing herself. The camera represents the eye of the photographer, and it is difficult for Esther to turn the camera on herself. As such, any photograph of Esther is still not representative of herself as she views herself, as she did not take the picture and thus cannot show, through the photograph, how she sees herself. However, Esther is still in possession of a device with which she can view herself: the mirror. When she is hospitalized, Esther receives a mirror and sees herself:
At first I didn’t see what the trouble was. It wasn’t a mirror, it was a picture.
You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. The person’s mouth was pale brown, with a rose coloured sore at either end. [….] I smiled.
The mouth in the mirror cracked a grin. (Plath 168)
As with the picture of Esther in the newspaper, the mirror image of Esther is depicted in a way that removes her humanity. Plath describes the face in odd colours, reminiscent of bruises (a definite indicator that an external force has caused something to go wrong within the body). The face itself is “shapeless” and “chicken-like,” not human. All this creates a distance within Esther’s self as she recognizes it and the Esther in the mirror. At the very beginning of the passage, the image of Esther in the mirror is equated with a picture. The connection occurs because Esther cannot connect her self to the person in the mirror. Throughout the passage, she refers to her reflection as “the person,” not as “me” or “Esther.” Even when the smile at the end connects them, she still says “the mouth in the mirror,” not “my mouth.” The moment of recognition passes, and, instead of finally recognizing the image of herself, Esther destroys the vessel of her reflection: “A minute after the crash, another nurse ran in. She took one look at the broken mirror and at me, standing over the blind, white pieces and hustled the young nurse out of the room” (Plath 168). The mirror too is an eye, and it is not an eye into the self for Esther. Instead, it is another producer of simplified, unrecognizable images, like the camera, and so she must blind it. This is the moment when Esther begins the healing process that the rest of the book follows: not when she is admitted to the hospital, but when she breaks the camera image that is reflected in the mirror.
Esther’s need to blind the mirror, and keep it from showing her the image of herself after she realizes that the face in it is hers, is tied to the recurrence of the camera as a motif. The image of Esther is always controlled by the eye of someone else, through the camera, so the picture of Esther is never Esther as she sees herself. Throughout the text, Esther sees herself in the mirror, and she tends to be distanced from the image, but she still knows that she is looking in a mirror: “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian. I dropped the compact into my pocket-book and stared out of the train window” (Plath 109). But here, she sees the Esther in the mirror as a picture, as an image of herself controlled, reduced and manipulated by eyes outside of her. When the mirror becomes a picture, the self that Esther finds in the mirror becomes equivalent to the images of Esther that have been seen throughout the text: Esther’s Body, Esther’s Goal, Esther the Dummy, Esther the Tarty Bloomingdale Girl, and now, Esther the Person in the Picture. She becomes only her face for a moment, and in this moment, to escape being an image of Esther, she must break the vessel of the image. This is how Esther escapes the eye of the camera: not by seeing herself through other means, but by breaking those means, and thus escaping the image cycle. In some ways, the purpose of the entire book is to “break the mirror.” The image cycle traps us, as Esther is trapped, and we internalize the images that others project onto us until the mirror reflects not us, but our image-selves. Esther is herself not when she can see herself, but instead, when she cannot, and begins the process of healing and freeing herself from the camera’s eye when she breaks the mirror, and by extension, the camera inside herself. We, like Esther, must break the mirrors and learn to not see ourselves, and then we can begin to heal.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber. 2013. Print.