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📙 The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath. Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef because the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experiences with what may have been clinical depression or bipolar II disorder. Plath died by suicide a month after its first UK publication.
Plath, S. (1963). The Bell Jar (1st ed. used Sylvia Plath’s pseudonym: Victoria Lucas). Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.
Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.
Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.
Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?
Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.
Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.
In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.
Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.
Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.
His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?
I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.
His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.
Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:
The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— Sylvia Plath
The quote from the French playwright, Jean Racine, means: “In the heart of the forest, his image follows me.” Plath might have deployed this line to encapsulate her poem and/or possibly its founding inspiration. Racine (1639–1699) was one of the three great playwrights of 17th c. France, along with Molière and Corneille, and an important literary figure of the Western tradition.
In this poem, tellingly titled “pursuit” the protagonist is being tracked and hunted by a metaphorical ‘panther.’ As it is known that Plath is a confessional poet, we can assume that she’s writing about herself and the lines are her musings about sex and its linkages to power and violence. The specific image of forest being set on fire contrasts the idea of nature and preservation vs. fire and destruction. Plath does this to accentuate the idea of how the ‘panther’, who we can attribute to her soon to be husband: Ted Hughes. The repetition of paired phrases that reflect a contrast between nature and destruction might even suggest how although Plath has established that the ‘panther’ is something destructive and powerful, she is drawn to him, yet is this primarily due to his power or his sex?
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