Sylvia Plath’s Magic Mirror

The duality that Sylvia Plath wrote about in her thesis provides the basis for the personality of Esther, the protagonist of Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”

By Kelly CoyneMay 26, 2018

Sylvia Plath’s Magic Mirror

ON NOVEMBER 20, 1962, three months before her death, Sylvia Plath was living in Devon, England, when she wrote to her college benefactress and mentor — Olive Higgins Prouty, a novelist living in the United States — about a second book she was writing. Plath wanted to dedicate it to her:

It is to be called “Doubletake”, meaning that the second look you take at something reveals a deeper, double meaning […] it is semi-autobiographical about a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer although she had thought he was wonderful & perfect. I would like very much, if the book is good enough, to dedicate this novel to you. It seems appropriate that this be “your” novel, since you know against what odds I am writing it and what the subject means to me; I hope to finish it in the New year. Do let me know if you’d let me dedicate it to you. Of course I’d want you to approve of it first!

In Plath’s characteristic aplomb, even in times of distress, she signed off, “With love, Sylvia.” The novel, however, disappeared.

Winter, 1963 — the season she was about to encounter — turned out to be brutal. It was one of England’s coldest and most relentless winters on record, and Plath struggled against pneumonia, financial strain, and shoddy mental-health treatment, all while raising her two young children, Frieda and Nicholas, alone in the damp countryside after her husband, Ted Hughes, left with his mistress. What is especially striking about the literary goal Plath discussed in her letter is its fictional expression of themes about which Plath was writing as early as an undergraduate student — concerns that Plath never quite resolved.

Her undergraduate thesis, which she wrote as a senior at Smith College mostly during the autumn of 1954, is titled “The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels.” “The Magic Mirror” explores literary doubles made up of a character’s repressed traits, and, as the double grows in power, it heralds the protagonist’s death. Citing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Plath argued that the choice to create a double works to “reveal hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner” and simultaneously exposes the driving conflicts of the novel housing that character. Her thesis claims that both Ivan, of The Brothers Karamazov, and Golyadkin, of The Double, have attempted to repress troubling aspects of their personalities, resulting in the double. Plath summons Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank to illustrate the myth of the double: typically, after the double is revealed to its originator, the creator seeks to hide away from it before finally developing a death wish. For Plath, such “desire for oblivion is expressed” in the “tendency to hide in shadows and in back hallways; it develops into a strong wish for death.”

The duality about which Plath wrote in her thesis provides the basis for the personality of Esther, the protagonist of Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar (1963). The novel chronicles Esther’s struggle with a mental polarity that ultimately results in her suicide attempt. Plath clearly lifted the descriptions for Esther’s character from Dostoyevsky. For example, Esther steps into an elevator and watches as “[t]he doors folded shut like a noiseless accordion. Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face.” Then she recognizes herself: “It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked.” The troubling racial distinction — contrasting Esther’s pallor against the darker skin of her double — revised The Brothers Karamazov’s similar racialization. Plath, quoting Dostoyevsky in her thesis, noted that Ivan’s double, Smerdyakov, is “wrinkled” and “yellow.” The distinct differences in appearance between originator and double, she continued, are meant to reflect the protagonist’s mental state and cultural status: “Ivan’s brilliance makes him highly acceptable in society, while Smerdyakov is ‘remarkably unsociable and taciturn.’”

Plath wrote about the tendencies of Dostoyevsky’s characters — especially a desire for concealment and fantasies of death — which Esther also develops as The Bell Jar progresses and her double arrives. The threat of the double is present in subtle forms from the beginning of the novel and only grows stronger as it continues. At the novel’s beginning, for example, Plath hints at Esther’s looming shame and attendant desire for oblivion through the double’s nascent presence. When a photographer comes to the magazine where Esther is an intern, Esther knows she is about to cry. She tries “concealing [herself] in the powder room, but it didn’t work,” because Betsy, a fellow intern, sees her feet underneath the doors. As Esther’s photograph is taken, she feels tears beginning to surface, the photographer urging her: “Come on, give us a smile.” “Conceal,” here, then, has a double meaning: it gestures forward to the makeup Esther uses to cover her face following her meltdown while also echoing her previous impulse to hide in the powder room (purposed to allow women privacy as they conceal themselves) before the tears surface.

Once Esther’s tears spill out, she is abandoned by both Jay Cee — her editor at the magazine — and by the photographer. When read through the lens of Plath’s thesis, this scene reveals that the double has overtaken her protagonist, as it is associated with antisocial behavior, whereas the creator is just the opposite, attractive to others in both physique and personality. The adults who pursue the original Esther as a minion throughout the novel, for example, exhibit her narcissistic lure: “Why did I attract these weird old women?” Esther wonders to herself: “There was the famous poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady and lord knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them.” So, when Esther cries and is abandoned, she tries to hide, searching “in my pocketbook for the gilt compact with the mascara and the mascara brush and the eyeshadow and the three lipsticks and the side mirror” that she received from the magazine.

When she finally sees herself in the mirror, Esther recounts her reaction as if she has been punished for her outburst: “The face that peered back at me seemed to be peering from the grating of a prison cell after a prolonged beating.” The scene rings of persecution: “It looked bruised and puffy and all the wrong colors.” After Esther pulls out her makeup, she states its intention to purify and conceal the ugly self that stares back at her: “It was a face that needed soap and water and Christian tolerance.” This increasing desire for concealment literalizes the double’s rise to power. “I had been unmasked,” Esther recalls of another fraught interaction with Jay Cee, “and I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” Her instinct proves valid, as the double overtakes her before provoking the death wish, a desire that manifests in fantasies of suicide: hanging herself by the cord of her mother’s bathrobe, drowning herself, taking her mother’s sleeping pills. The connection between a desire for anonymity and death is affirmed when Esther finally attempts to kill herself hidden away from the world, underneath a cellar in her mother’s home.

Imagery of concealment begins to boom louder and louder as the double rises in power, a rhetorical harbinger of Esther’s suicidal urges. When Marco — a tall man with dark hair, a radiant stickpin keeping his tie in place, and a flickering smile that reminds Esther of a snake she saw at the zoo that opened its jaws, as if to smile, before it “struck and struck and struck” at her — tries to rape her, Esther describes that “he threw himself face down as if he would grind his body through me and into the mud.” After he assaults Esther, she stays in “the fringe of the shadows so nobody would notice the grass plastered to my dress and shoes, and with my black stole I covered my shoulders and bare breasts.” The instinct to hide in the shadows and cover herself with dark clothing is coupled with rhetoric of an underground burial, illustrating the inextricable nature of concealment and death.

These images — of being driven into the ground, of death, and of a yearning for disguise — are repeated again after Esther loses her sanity, as the double overcomes the Esther we meet at the novel’s opening. Before her suicide attempt, Esther describes wanting to hide under her mother’s mattress:

I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn’t shut out the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough. It needed about a ton more weight to make me sleep.

Here, Esther embodies Golyadkin’s mental state: as Plath wrote in her thesis, the originator’s “instinct to hide in the dark reiterates” the “desire to be anonymous (therefore irresponsible and detached) and unseen (therefore nonexistent or dead).” The wound from which Esther tries, and fails, to hide chimes with the inescapable, colonizing double, and Plath’s language again illustrates its penal nature: it is inside Esther, but it traps her like a jail cell. That Esther associates the desire to hide from herself with death, indicated in her fantasy of being pressed underneath a “dark” and “safe” tombstone mattress as if she is going into the ground, is not surprising, for the crux of Plath’s thesis is this longing for oblivion, or concealment, that soon turns into a yearning for death.

In her copy of Freud’s “Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thought,” an essay cited in her thesis, Plath underlined the following phrase: “According to the conception of primitive men, a


is an essential part of a personality;

if therefore you know the name of a person or a spirit you have acquired a certain power over its bearer.

” When Esther’s double surfaces — when her skin is described as yellow, when she enjoys alcohol, when she is wearing black — she tends to create personas for herself: lying about her name, dreaming up and recounting a fictional biography. Of introducing herself as Elly, one of these personalities, Esther recalls: “After that I felt safer. I didn’t want anything I said or did that night to be associated with me and my real name and coming from Boston.”

From her conception of The Bell Jar all the way to its final revisions, Plath suffered an exhausting amount of anxiety over its heroine’s name — as if echoing the line from Freud’s essay that Plath underlined. On April 27, 1961, Plath boasted in a letter to Ann Davidow-Goodman, a friend from Smith, that she was “over one-third through a novel about a college girl building up for and going through a nervous breakdown.” Concerned already at the prospect of being associated with its protagonist, Plath qualified: “I’ll have to publish it under a pseudonym, if I ever get it accepted, because it’s so chock full of real people I’d be sued to death and all my mother’s friends wouldn’t speak to her because they are all taken off.” Indeed, this wasn’t mere paranoia; she did have to change her protagonist’s name at the instruction of her editor for legal reasons. On November 14, 1961, she wrote a long letter to her editor, James Michie, in response to his libel concerns, a painstakingly careful outline of The Bell Jar that distinguishes fact from fiction. The letter’s beginning notes: “Of course you’re right about the name of author and heroine needing to be different.” At one point, Plath named her protagonist Victoria Lucas, her pseudonym in England.

Most novelists likely have concerns about being associated with the characters to whom they give life, especially the ugly ones, and especially when the character resembles its author. Yet what is unique about Plath’s case is her knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings and implications of her choice to push Esther away, and the hold this knowledge assumed on Plath’s work and life. Another look at The Bell Jar with a consideration of Esther as Plath’s double tangles the issue even further, and Plath drops clues for this kind of reading throughout the novel. Esther, for example, sits down to write her own novel and recounts, “My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.” Not coincidentally, Plath’s first name has six letters as well. Her protagonist’s name was something with which Plath struggled through revisions: in different stages, she was named Elaine and Frieda. The maternal lineage evoked by Plath’s consideration of the name Frieda — the name of Plath’s daughter — is repeated in the final choice of Greenwood for Esther’s last name, which is the same as Plath’s grandmother’s. (Aurelia Grunwald, Plath’s maternal grandmother, immigrated as a teenager to the United States, where her last name was changed to Greenwood.)

Imagining the time and energy spent adjusting the distance between author and heroine while looking at these drafts is remarkable, a time before computers and CTRL-F and the delete button, when each draft had to be retyped. As she continued revising, Plath tore herself away from Esther, due to libel and Plath’s anxiety about her mother reading the novel. (In a disturbing twist, a letter dated March 15, 1963 — barely a month after Plath’s death — thanks Ted Hughes for “for giving us permission to disclose Victoria Lucas’s real identity. The reprint of THE BELL JAR is already on its way to the shops but we will make an announcement to the trade and the Press.”) Like Esther, Plath associated with her heroine but wanted to disguise this relationship; like the protagonists she wrote about in her thesis, Plath met Esther with an ambivalent flurry of attraction, curiosity, and fear.

A chilling letter from Plath’s editor drives the terror of the double into Plath’s own life. On February 12, 1963, David Machin, her new editor, who took over after Michie left for another publishing house, wrote to Plath asking if he put down the wrong date of their lunch meeting. It was scheduled for the day before — the date of Plath’s death. The two had never met in person, Plath didn’t show up, and they had been planning the lunch for months. Plath committed suicide on the day she was to meet her editor for the first time in person, a month after the British publication of the novel.

In her thesis, written nearly a decade earlier, as she turned 22 — the year after her first documented suicide attempt — Plath claimed, quoting Otto Rank:

In such situations, where the Double symbolizes the evil or repressed elements in man’s nature, the apparition of the Double “becomes a persecution by it, the repressed material returns in the form of that which represses.” Man’s instinct to avoid or ignore the unpleasant aspects of his character turns into an active terror when he is faced by his Double, which resurrects those very parts of his personality which he sought to escape. The confrontation of the Double in these instances usually results in a duel which ends in insanity or death for the original hero. [italics mine]

Just as Esther Greenwood was born, Sylvia Plath died. Her double lives on at the expense of its author, as if Plath recognized from the very beginning the threat posed by her heroine.


I would like to extend my thanks to Peter K. Steinberg for his counsel and cheer.


Kelly Coyne is a student in Northwestern’s PhD program in film and media studies. Her work has appeared in Literary HubPersuasions, and Polygraph.

LARB Contributor

Kelly Coyne is a writer and cultural historian. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other places. She teaches in the Department of English at Georgetown University.


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