The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I have long wanted to read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, mainly because one of the bloggers I trust the most, Leah from Books Speak Volumes, loves it so, so much. It’s very easy to find a quote from Plath’s novel on her Quotable Fridays. So, when this week I attended a congress at my college library, I went to the English and American literature floor to take a look at it and after toying with it for some hours, I decided to borrow it. My initial intention was to read it all through my Easter break and blog about my discovery of Sylvia Plath. Impossible: I read it in one sitting last afternoon-evening.

thebelljar

From Book Depository:

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

I think one of the most important things when sitting to read a book is to consider how much you know about the plot and the author. I was a little bit familiar with Plath since last year when a professor asked us if we knew Ted Hughes and one of my fellow students said: “Isn’t he Sylvia Plath’s husband?” and my professor replied: “Ha, you mean Plath was Hughes’ wife!”. From that moment on, I became interested and I started associating her with Zelda Fitzgerald: both were artistic, supposedly troubled women whose marriage to fellow writers resulted in an undervalue of their works. Later on, I started to see quotes from The Bell Jar at Books Speak Volumes and that was it, I knew I had to read it. I did know Plath had committed suicide, but to be sincere, I didn’t even know how.

When I started reading The Bell Jar – in breaks between the conferences at the congress – what first called my attention is how powerful the prose is. In three pages Plath had managed to make me feel suffocated, as I feel during long, hot and humid summers when I have nothing better to do than to lie in bed. I can relate so well to the feeling and asking myself “why should I get out of bed?”:

“I told Doreen I would not go to the show or the luncheon or the film premiere, but that I would not go to Coney Island either, I would stay in bed. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.”

But, as I read about Esther and her troubles, I realized that I was also familiar with the way she felt about her career and her life and how society expected something of her she was not sure she wanted. I also connected with Esther in the little things, like lying in bed, reading, writing and taking a hot bath to wash away the day’s perils both physically and metaphorically. At that moment, such a behaviour was labelled as neurotic, luckily nowadays it’s considered even a rite of passage and a way to get to know yourself.

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

On the whole, I found The Bell Jar to be a dislocated coming-of-age story: if Esther had lived in the 21st century – I hope – she would have suffered less. I cannot imagine the pressure to become a secretary, a mother and a wife and how inadequate it must feel to have different ideas. How it must hurt to have your own mother doubt your abilities and your dreams:

“I didn’t know shorthand either.

This meant I couldn’t get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand would be something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.”

One of the things I didn’t expect was to be scared reading this book. And I was more than I can be with any terror/crime novel. And my fear came from the psychiatrist and the system. For centuries women who did not fit a pattern – submissive, housewives and mothers running the world behind closed doors while their husbands worked outside the home – were bluntly labelled as “crazy” and subjected to so-called treatments. Those treatments were actually a kind of torture, a punishment from the dominant order for not behaving as it was expected. The moment Esther is taken to her first electroshock session at doctor Gordon’s clinic I panicked. I panicked the same way as I did when she described how a woman in labour was administered by a male doctor a drug that would make forget the pain – the way you panick when you lose all control over someone who thinks knows better than you do. Esther is a woman being treated by men and surrounded by women teamed up with them, brain-washed by the system. There is something terribly wrong when a mother supports society and the established rules instead of her own daughter.

The style is definitely 20th century with newspaper headlines making it into some chapters and a subtle yet powerful social critique behind Esther’s adventures and misadventures. It is also very intimate and easy to read which makes it the perfect engaging reading. I think if you are a woman the style and the way Esther portrays her feelings will hit home although I’d like to think in a less rotund and rough way for 21st century women. However, we all know how it feels to be asked when are you (finally) to get married or have children. No one stops to think that maybe, we don’t want to. Plus, don’t get me started on the impoliteness of both questions!

So, as you can imagine, I loved The Bell Jar. I can’t wait to read it again now that I know how it ends although Esther mentioning her children at the beginning made the reading somehow safer. I also want to read more about Plath and her life, actually there is a recent book called Mad Girl’s Love Song about her life pre-Hughes which I think it’s a very interesting topic: to define Plath for herself and her wonderful, overwhelming and masterpiece work and not for her husband.

8 thoughts on “The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. Thank you for reminding me of Sylvia Plath. I learned so briefly about her in a class and have always meant to get back to her. I think I am going to put this on my soon to be read list. I love, love, love that Ted Hughes is now referred to as her husband rather than vice versa. What a giant leap for womankind!

    1. As you can see there are still men who stuggle with that definition and still praise Hughes over Plath. Well, I hope they change their minds or at least that their students are wise enough to not pay them attention and double-check their notes.

  2. Yay, I’m so glad you loved it! I get kind of nervous when someone actually reads a book I’ve really recommended — like ‘oh no, I’m going to feel terrible if they don’t like it!”

    The first time I read The Bell Jar, I was 19 and didn’t know anything about Sylvia Plath. I probably knew she committed suicided and that this is a semi-autobiographical novel, but that was about it. I just remember being amazed by the power of her words and walking around for days feeling like I was going crazy myself. She does such an amazing job putting you inside Esther’s head and really making you feel everything! And then all the societal stuff is great too.

    This is such a great post! I loved reading about how this book impacted you; it’s so special!

    P.S. Thanks for mentioning my blog 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Leah, it’s because of you I read it!

      I did feel like going crazy myself – let’s say “crazy” – for the whole day. I’m afraid had I read it during a week I would have emotionally struggled.

  3. I’m so glad you loved it!
    I first read this book when I was 18 and I really related to the coming of age theme. There’s a bit where Esther describes her life choices like branches on a tree and when she chooses one, all of the others will wither. Growing up definitely feels like that.

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful review.

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