Autobiography · Classics · Feminist · Fiction

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My rating: 4/5 stars

This book is one of many on my TBR that comes from a category of books that I feel obliged to read.  Widely recognized as one of the greatest pieces of literature from the 20th century, it has been touted as feminist literature almost to cliché.  Sylvia Plath’s short life has always fascinated me and I felt like I was in a good place to give her first, and only, novel a fair chance.

The Bell Jar focuses on the life of its heroine, Esther Greenwood, for six months of her life and through a spectacular mental breakdown.  She is a college student and has been given a chance to write for a fashion magazine in New York for a month, expenses paid.  When the month ends, she returns to her small hometown outside Boston and after being rejected for a spot in a writing course, the cracks in her psyche begin to widen and gape for all to see.  She enters a severe depression and spends the summer attempting to find a successful way to put an end to her own misery.  When she almost succeeds in this endeavour, she is committed to an asylum where she is put through a variety of treatments, including the dreaded shock therapy.  The book then takes a slightly upward swing as she begins to regain her sanity and her life.

What surprised me most about the novel was that while it was rich in sensory description, it was almost completely devoid of emotion.  Every page has a straightforwardness that is almost haunting to read.  Even her failed suicide attempts are told without a glimmer of the true feelings that must have precipitated them and this lends a somewhat comic aspect to a situation that is horrifying and heart-breaking.  As a reader, I’m not sure what to do with that.  Take this example from a scene where she attempts to hang herself:

“After a discouraging time of walking about with the silk cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed and tried pulling the cord tight.  But each time I would get the cord so tight I could feel a rushing in my ear and a flush of blood in my face, my hands would weaken and let go, and I would be all right again.  Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.”     – The Bell Jar, p. 159

One might say that she is romanticizing the thought of suicide, but I have also read that this book opened up the topic for discussion.  I can see how this would be possible, as the lack of emotion allows the reader to explore her descent and thought process without being bogged down in the feelings that created the situation in the first place.

Throughout the novel, Esther is dissatisfied with the choices offered to women at the time.  She correctly surmises that there are only a few routes to follow in her life and resists making any kind of definitive choice.  She uses the image of a fig tree numerous times throughout the novel and describes the figs as each being a pathway one can take in life, then says that she would be sitting in the tree starving for lack of having picked one.  I believe that it is issues such as these that have endeared this book to generations of young people.  Deciding what direction one’s life should take is a dilemma that is almost universally human and Esther’s general malaise with gender roles and societal obligations is especially significant to young females.

Esther seems to see women who have accepted domesticity and motherhood as almost an affront to herself.  The book is rife with references to, and images of, babies.  Motherhood seems to be on Esther’s mind at all times, even though she can’t bring herself to want that fate.  Rather, a domestic life seems to be a last resort to her, a fate akin to a sort of death, a “giving up” of sorts.  Even her descriptions of place are teeming with this theme.

“I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment onto the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me.  It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies.  A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.”     – The Bell Jar, p. 113

There is a lot to uncover and speculate about in this deceptively simple book.  There is no question that Sylvia Plath was a remarkably talented writer and the novel is compulsively readable.  Esther Greenwood is not a likable character, but she is fascinating to read.  She has a general disgust for everyone around her, especially her mother, although the reasons for this are never wholly clear to the reader.

The novel feels like it has been written in two distinct parts.  While the first half of the book is alive with sensory description, the latter half feels like you’re seeing the story through a shroud of translucent gauze.  Just as Esther has given up on being in the world, her accounts of the time during her incarceration in the asylum are brief, thin snippets that ignore the actual experience of living in the world.  It’s almost as if the writing itself has taken on some of Esther’s hopelessness.

One cannot ignore the fact, however, that Esther’s story lacks substance.  She is a privileged white girl with privileged white girl problems.  Don’t expect to feel a whole lot of sympathy for her.  There is also a lot of casual rascism in the book, but considering it was published in 1963 one might expect as much.  I wouldn’t read it if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, as it would most likely colour the experience and the main character for you.

And with that, I conclude the phase of my life of being nearly the only female who has never read this book.  Despite the shallowness of story (forgivable considering it is somewhat autobiographical and framed with Plath’s own life experiences), the writing is excellent and unique.  It is a quick read that feels both relevent and archaic at the same time.  I’m glad I finally crossed it off my list.

Happy reading!

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