Trauma is a theme discussed closely in both novels. Physical events cause mental traumas for the characters in both works, and Barker uses World War I as a backdrop for this in Regeneration. Likewise, Plath uses the ‘wars’ of everyday life in 1960’s America, such as social pressure, class, gender, mental health and parental relationships, to show Esther Greenwood’s descent into madness.
In a review of Regeneration for The New York Times, Alan Riding explains how Barker felt a close connection to the traumas of WWI as “her grandfather had been a soldier…his war stories seemed all the more real because of a bayonet scar on his back which she was occasionally allowed to touch. ” This statement puts into perspective Barker’s decision to use The First World War as the setting for her trilogy and her seamless descriptions and understanding of the traumas that the soldiers experienced at the time, and creates a personal and palpable relationship between Barker and her characters.
Second-Lieutenant Billy Prior proves to be a good example of the effects of trauma in the novel. He is one of Barker’s few works of fiction: a mute, a characteristic highly uncommon in officers of his rank at the time, and, equally uncommonly, a man of working-class roots. Prior’s mutism is a mystery to both Rivers and the reader as Rivers has “no file” for his case, and Prior stubbornly insists that he cannot remember what happened. The first time that the reader encounters Prior, we gain the impression that he has no wish to recover his voice, nor does he have any wish to remember what happened to him.
We realise this when Rivers asks whether he “talks in his sleep,” at which he detects “a flicker of uneasiness” from Prior. Prior’s reluctance to recollect the events of his trauma is a mannerism which we come to see as being typical of his character. We notice this when Prior’s father visits him shortly after Prior has recovered his voice, he insinuates that “[His voice] comes when it’s convenient and goes when it isn’t. ” This suggests that Prior has been ‘mute’ in the past.
It also implies that Prior’s silence can be linked to episodes of his past which he would like to forget or be forgotten; if he doesn’t talk about it, then he can pretend that it didn’t happen, or, quite literally, keep them “hushed up. ” This point shows how Prior’s trauma is silencing him. This is imperative to the understanding of both novels as it symbolises that ambiguous opinions that society has on how much truth the public should be told about the horror and trauma of war.
Therefore Prior feels that he cannot speak as he does not want to upset or worry his family, nor does he wish to contradict the perspective of war that the media will have created among civilians. His bitterness towards this is revealed when he mockingly says to Rivers: “I’m sorry to inform you that your son got caught in a shell explosion today and took five hours to die! ” Here, the mockery comes from the fact that mere words seem to cheapen the reality of the ideas being expressed.
This aspect can also be generalised to daily, more common ‘wars’ such as childbirth, as Plath indicates in The Bell Jar. However, The Wakefield Library Reader’s Group reviewed that Prior “has lost the ability to speak, through shock or possibly even by choice. ” The fact that he could have lost his voice “by choice” is particularly relevant to the visit from Prior’s father as it represents the poor relationship that they share; Prior explains that his father is “a bar-room socialist” and a wife beater, having seen him “use [his] mother as a football,” in the past.
But equally this statement suggests that he cares for his mother too much to want her to know the full extent of the trauma which he has suffered, and so he chooses to remain silent. On the other hand, and more relevantly, Prior’s mutism is first and foremost the result of his time in battle; he finds that he has lost the ability to speak following the “shock” of finding the detached eye-ball of him comrade. Subsequently, his final words are: “What am I supposed to do with this gob-stopper?
” Prior’s language here is childish and crass which reflects the infantile nature of his mutism; this event is so traumatic that it stimulates regression. This is highlighted with his choice to use the word “gob-stopper;” a child’s sweet. In the book, this scene offers the reader a detailed insight into Prior’s thoughts and feelings on the build up to him losing his voice. However in the 1997 film directed by Gillies Mackinnon, the visual elements play an important role in the audiences’ understanding of the effects that the war had on soldiers and the importance of comradeship within the trenches.
Though Mackinnon’s visual interpretation does not give the audience the insight into Prior’s emotions that Barker does, he does show us a more panoramic view of the trauma, which demonstrates Mackinnon’s commitment and understanding of the traumas endemic in the war. Likewise, The Bell Jar shows how physical events such as rape create psychological traumas which send Esther spiralling into ‘madness’.
Much like in Regeneration, where the ‘war’ could be referred to as a ‘rape’ of the land, as landscapes were rendered unrecognisable, and soldiers were attacked night and day, Esther’s attempted rape violates her, and it is this episode which triggers her decline into the world of ‘insanity’. Throughout The Bell Jar, it is clear that Esther’s phobia of becoming pregnant overrides her ability to communicate successfully with men; childbirth and pregnancy repulse her, so the thought of having sex with a man is disgusting as, in her mind, it must always end in pregnancy.
This fear is not subdued by the knowledge that marital rape was still legalised at the time when The Bell Jar was published and so, whether Esther liked it or not, she would have to lose her virginity at some point, and thus endure the trauma of pregnancy. In the book ‘American Female Gothic,’ Elaine Showalter says that “pregnant women especially seem like freaks to Esther,” as in the novel she describes Dodo Conway’s “grotesque protruding stomach,” and the pregnant lady with “an enormous spider-fat stomach and two ugly spindly legs,” whose labour Esther observes.
These descriptions, which portray the horrible truths of pregnancy and childbirth which are generally kept unsaid, show the reader Esther’s repulsed attitude towards them. This shows the reader that Esther feels trapped between the knowledge that sex could end in a dreaded pregnancy and the unbearable pressure that she feels she is under to lose her virginity. Therefore, as Showalter goes on to say, one possible denouement to the novel is that Esther gains “sexual freedom through birth control,” as Doctor Nolan allows her to get her first diaphragm.
This also serves as confirmation that Esther is getting better as she is permitted freedom from the hospital and also that of her own body. As is the case with Prior and his “gob-stopper,” Marco’s attempted rape on Esther is, essentially, what finally sends her mad. In this scene, Esther says that she “had full view of the battle ahead. ” By saying this, Plath regenerates the thought of war being a ‘rape’ of the land, as she describes this literal rape as being a “battle” between Esther and Marco.
After she has fought Marco off, “he wiped his fingers under his bloody nose and with two strokes stained [Esther’s] cheeks,” however , as Marjorie G Perloff said in ‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar’: “the two diagonal lines of dried blood on her cheeks do not perturb her, for her body no longer seems real. ” We see this when Esther returns to her New York hotel and “fed [her] wardrobe to the night wind…like a loved one’s ashes. ” Here Esther shows her first obvious signs of madness as she throws away all of her clothes.
However, this scene also symbolises the turning point in Esther’s life; New York presents itself “as if for a funeral,” as Esther scatters reminders of her ‘old’ life (of sanity) across the city which inflicted the traumas that she has experienced. Furthermore we see how Marco’s attempted rape is the aforementioned “trauma” as Esther explains that she “hadn’t felt like washing off the two diagonal lines of dried blood that marked [her] cheeks…I thought I would carry them around with me like the relic of a dead lover.
” Here the “dead lover” could be seen to be Marco; Esther keeps the dried blood on her face as a reminder of the cruelty of men and sex. This blood also represents Esther’s “battle” scar, much like the bayonet scar belonging to Barker’s grandfather. Equally however, the “dead lover” could also be interpreted to be the ‘sane’ Esther, whom she ‘cremated’ in New York when she “fed [her] wardrobe to the night wind…like a loved one’s ashes,” the “loved one” of course being the sanity which she is sacrificing. In both novels, physical responses to trauma, in addition to the psychological responses already discussed, are symbolic of femininity.
For example, in The Bell Jar “the shedding of blood marks major transitions in Esther’s life. ” When Marco attempts to rape her, she gives him a bloody nose, and he smears his blood on her like war paint. When she decides to kill herself, she slashes her calf to practice slashing her wrist. When she loses her virginity, she bleeds so copiously that she must seek medical attention. The presence of blood in this novel suggests a ritual sacrifice; Esther will sacrifice her body for peace of mind, and sacrifice her virginity for the sake of experience.
The blood’s presence also indicates the frightening violence of Esther’s experiences, suggesting that, in her eyes, for women to evolve there must be pain and suffering, not joy. Esther’s physical responses to these traumatic experiences are similar in nature to those of Burns and Betty in Regeneration. The character of Burns is different to Prior and other patients at Craiglockhart as, despite him being male, he responds in a physical way to his trauma which brings to mind women and their experiences in both novels.
Burns prefers not to speak about his trauma or the war to Rivers, as Rivers notices when he mentions the sandbags which supply protection against flooding: “Evidently they brought back no other memories. ” This could suggest that Burns has been ‘cured’, however we know this not to be true as “there was no mention of supper,” which shows us that he still doesn’t eat, despite having been discharged from the hospital. Therefore we know that Burns avoids the subject of himself and his trauma in a bid to appear masculine as, in 1917, it was not thought acceptable for men to break down and appear ‘weak’.
We see this from Barker’s grandfather who refused to talk to her about his battle scar. However in doing this, Burns’ physical responses to his trauma remind the reader of Esther’s haemorrhage and Betty’s punctured bladder as their bodies rebel against the traumas inflicted upon them, just as Burns’ body rejects food. In conclusion, both Plath and Barker successfully show how physical traumas such as death, war and rape can create insanity, and so dissolving the boundary between sane and insane, as it is a traumatic world.