I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.
Here we experience Plath’s love affair with shadow, suggesting yet another dichotomy: shadow and light. The two coexist, although Plath doesn’t allude to shadow’s counterpart; she writes about it as a single entity, existing in the most ordinary things, giving them depth and beauty. In noting the shadow at the “back of people’s eyes and smiles,” Plath seems to underscore the importance of human relationships and subtext—a critical theme in Plath’s poetry and a possible explanation for why she connects so well, so broadly, and so richly to so many people. In isolation, Plath could not achieve this “social nirvana” that not only embraces the shadows that characterize her existence, but elevates them. This duality creates a vivid picture of Plath’s interpretation of happiness: seeing shadows as a thing of beauty, whereas most people perhaps only appreciate the light. This perception of shadow through a different, brighter lens comes from Plath’s ability to connect with the people around her. This is something she achieves intermittently in life, as does her protagonist in The Bell Jar.
The most telling example of this achievement, and one that truly captures Plath’s ability to discern beauty in a dark, troublesome reality, is this line: “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’” There is no equivocating in this simple statement, made during a free-spirited rush down a skiing hill, which ended in a broken leg (Plath broke her leg skiing as a senior in college). First, Plath describes the components of the world: air. Mountains. Trees. People. This evokes a simple scene from Plath’s life but a crucial one: she has managed to escape the claustrophobia of her pressure-filled life through a trip to the mountains, which in some sense capture the same vast, beautiful possibility of the open sea. Here, too, there are people. There must be for Plath to achieve true happiness. The last line confirms it: “This is what it is to be happy.” There is no comparison here, no softening of terms with a simile or metaphor; this is Sylvia Plath’s definition of happiness.