This is just the week of knocking out firsts, I guess. Okay but book #21 of my year was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and it was SO GOOD. I’m a little embarrassed to even admit that I hadn’t read this book before, but I blame my prior English class curriculums. I actually bought this book for a class and we ended up not reading it, but I’m really not sure why you would ever take this book off a syllabus in favor of another one. I hope that other one was worth it.
Anyway, The Bell Jar is told from the perspective of Esther Greenwood. She begins the story living in New York, working for a magazine and wondering why she can’t appreciate her summer the way she’s supposed to, and the way the other 11 girls who won the summer job are. (PS sorry, spoilers coming up. But I assume mostly everyone has already read this book and is silently judging me for just now getting to it, so. I’m not that sorry.)
As the summer goes on, Esther slowly spirals downward into an enormous mental break, and bottomless depression. I read this on the back cover of the novel before I started, so I think I was looking for signs of it. Either way, the downward spiral is gradual at first, and then as her summer comes to a close in New York it escalates quickly. She thinks about suicide almost constantly, and eventually begins her cycles through hospitals and institutions after a suicide attempt.
The thing about this book, and about Esther as a narrator, is how easy it is to believe that Esther is actually the only sane person in the novel. And despite her suicide attempt and morbid way of viewing the world, I am still convinced that she might have been the most rational character. The pressure she’s faced all her life of growing up as a girl, constantly under the control of someone else, becomes intolerable. But I think half of it is also her inability to accept that what makes life meaningful for everyone around her is actually empty and meaningless. She can see that but no one else seems to be able to.
There’s also the way that people react to her “madness.” It’s all coming from her perspective, so it’s hard to remember not to take everything she narrates at face-value. At the same time though, the way that she is treated as a burden throughout the novel is a little too familiar to the way our society arguably still treats mental health issues. Characters react to Esther and her madness angrily most times, as if she’s an affront because she can’t just be happy and normal, or at least swallow it all back like everyone else manages to do.
Ah, it’s so good. And also so sad that themes about being a woman, being depressed, and society’s reaction to being those things still rings way too true. This novel makes me wonder how autobiographical it was for Plath herself. I’ve read some of her poetry, and obviously more or less know the historical facts about her sad, incredibly short life, but I have a feeling reading this will have ignited my interest in her.
Plath’s writing is so beautiful. I could happily read grocery lists written by her because I’m sure she’d find a way to describe just the shade of the red apple she wanted to buy, which would bring an entirely new meaning to the fruit. I underline passages in my books that resonate with me, either because of beauty of the language or the relatability (not a word, but it really should be a word) of the feeling or event being described. The Bell Jar might be my most heavily-marked book yet, because Plath so often conveys the most meaningful ideas with the most beautiful language, all at once.
And once again, I’m feeling frustrated at my December-2014 self for the resolution forbidding me to buy new books until I’ve read all mine. I just want to read more Plath. ◊
I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.”
– page 75
The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
– page 83