The Bell Jar is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves for ages, that I have always wanted to have read but never ended up starting. Until, recently, a friend mentioned planning to read it next and I took that as an occasion to join in a little buddy read.
“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.”
Next to all the autobiographic references one can spot in this novel with a little knowledge of Sylvia Plath’s life, this quote really makes you think about The Bell Jar’s author. What might have been going on in her mind as she set down to chronicle her depression? Was it an attempt at self-therapy, putting pain in words to take away some of its power? Was it an explanation to those who could not understand what it felt like being her? Or was it, perhaps, a suicide note? The Bell Jar was first published in 1963 just a month before the author’s suicide. Originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, the novel was only released under Plath’s name after her death.
Esther Greenwood is a young, intelligent woman spending her first summer in New York for an internship at the Ladies’ Day magazine. At nineteen years old, she is used to working hard or all her successes. But in this glamorous world she gets to move in or one summer, she starts to question all her dreams and desires. Her talent is never questioned but her inspiration disappears in her unfulfilling day-to-day. She struggles with her own identity, feels the need to choose who she wants to become without any option being truly appealing. The pressures of the social rules restricting how a young woman should live in the 1950s weigh heavy on her and she struggles against them with all her might. Torn between two friends – Doreen, who is rebellious and flirtatious, and Betsy, timid and well-behaved – Esther cannot quite identify which expression of femininity is right for her. Her summer is filled with strange and unpleasant experiences that deepen her existential thoughts. From encounters with men, who she finds quite appalling in general, to food poisonings, much does not go to plan. Eventually, she is glad to return home to her mother, or at least to leave New York behind.
But home holds the next bad surprise for her. She has not been accepted to a writing course she had been counting on. Taught by a famous author, Esther had hoped to take the next steps towards becoming a poet, one of the identities she still aspires to. Slowly she starts to unravel. First it is her inability to sleep or wash. Insomnia keeps her up for weeks. She cannot read or write anymore, and really, what else is there for her to do? In scenes that are almost dream-like she wanders through her hometown lost and lonely until she finally attempts to commit suicide and is sent to an psychiatric institution. Electric-shock treatment and therapy with her encouraging psychiatrist Dr Nolan lead to some improvements, but Esther still finds herself in a society that refuses to understand what she is going through. Isolated as she is, she looks into the future uncertainly as a board of medical professionals decides over her next steps.
Reading this, I was reminded of Sara Kane’s play 4:48, in which the playwright gives a brutal insight into her psychosis and experiences of treatment. Both women are incredibly skilled at opening their minds and illnesses to the reader without dwelling in the emotional or sentimental. The precise language of the poet deals in thoughts and perceptions to paint a painfully vivid picture of what living under the bell jar is like. As readers we are fully immersed in Esther’s experience and witness her struggle to crawl back to a mental state she can survive in.
I did find the novel difficult to get into. It takes a few pages to get used to Esther’s – or Plath’s? – bored annoyance and superficial judgments. But as I got to know the character and gained access to her experiences her attitudes became increasingly honest and rational. Most attitudes, that is. The one thing I could not get over and that left a sour aftertaste was her persistent racism and homophobia that (at least from today’s perspective) seem difficult to unify with the views of an author so astutely aware and critical of women’s social positions. Plath’s feminism is strong but myopic and mostly focused on her own experience. Certainly ahead of its time in regards to describing mental illness in young, her political unawareness in other regards is disappointing.
That The Bell Jar is the work of a poet – not a civil rights activist – is obvious throughout this book. Plath’s choice of vocabulary, her sentences and metaphors are beautiful to read and simultaneously disturbing in the bleakness of their truths.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor … and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. 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.”