The Bell Jar

Author: Sylvia Plath

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1963

I read it: December 2014

bell jar

I was thirty by the time I finally got around to some feminist classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar (which I was pleased to notice both end on similar notes of uncertainty—intention on Atwood’s part?). I’d read a bit of Plath’s more well-known poetry in class years ago but didn’t know how the prose would feel. The book starts playfully with the social travails of Esther Greenwood in New York when she “felt wise and cynical as all hell.” She doesn’t fit in with her socialite crowd and if she doesn’t want to work in fashion or continue through higher education she realizes “I could be a waitress or a typist. But I couldn’t stand the idea of being either one.”

So goes this story of young adult identity crisis. While Esther experiences distinctly female challenges, she is the spiritual sister to Holden Caulfield. She gazes at her peers and claims they “looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moon-brains.” Here is where I wonder if I came to the book way too late. I adored The Catcher in the Rye probably because I read it during the sweet spot. Would I like it as much now? I’m afraid maybe not. The same might go for The Bell Jar. Does a certain type of college woman relate to Plath’s story while the males are holed up with their Salinger? Are we a bunch of moon-brains and phonies for reading these books a decade past their due?

Besides being outside the target audience, I wonder if the book also struggles to stay modern. Esther informs that “when I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” Is that a relic of the past, or can I just not relate because I’m a male? The idea of sexual purity seems a quaint plot point. While I get a kick out of words like “kerb” and “miaow,” I feel a huge distance between myself and the character. Or is it myself and the author? Plath seems to have written a barely disguised autobiography, yet without a wink or nod. This passage comes off as earnest, yet it’s so very out of place:

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.

I wonder which other six-letter names she could be referencing.

The novel takes a turn at the halfway point and dives into the character’s mental illness. It’s hard to parse what is supposed to be light reading and what is supposed to reflect deep desperation. At some points I worried that the ennui of Esther reinforces the lazy depressed person stereotype, or maybe it’s that her descent is a little too flippantly narrated, or maybe I just lack the personal experience. Plath does paint a few elegant pictures of what it’s like to feel mentally paralyzed. For example, each of life’s options are represented as ripe figs simply waiting for Esther’s outstretched hand:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

These analogies, more so than the restrained passages of shock treatment, seem to do the most good to reflect the character’s anguish. Otherwise, the whole asylum situation is rather tame, or perhaps that’s my numbed modern mind expecting more flash. The bell jar is another neat image, threatening always to descend over the woman with its “stifling distortions.” Which woman?

Plath’s life story is well-known, and factors into the study of creativity as paired with bipolar and other disorders, as explored in books like Marbles. In its time, was The Bell Jar an eye-opening look into a mental affliction, given as a gift to the world so that more people might identify and relate? Perhaps it was revolutionary once, but I see this book collecting dust instead of inspiring change. Or maybe it’s the fact that the author’s desperate actions overshadow all else, and I can’t untangle the literary mythology from the work or the person. Her life has been flattened into her one tragic exit. Sylvia, I can’t hear you from this end of history. Sylvia, get your head out of the oven.

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