A Book A Week: The Bell Jar

I’ve just finished reading the first book of 2011. A warning that this may contain spoilers of sorts.

The Bell Jar was acclaimed American poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, first published in 1963. I’d read it before a few years ago, but I was then too young to appreciate the weight of the ideas. In fact, fresh from having re-read it, as if for the first time, I wonder that the 16-year-old me could have read it and let it wash over. That said, I didn’t re-read it for a long time afterwards, so perhaps it did cast its own little shadow on the bookshelf… Anyway, it seemed timely to take it off the shelf again since a good friend gave me a copy of Ariel, a collection of Plath’s poems published posthumously. From the first page, I felt myself dragged into a mind worried by the world, by people, by the thought of how one should feel. Sitting on a slow, coasting train into London I read one after another, and then again on the way out of London, in and out, feeling like all the while I was being knotted up in the suicidal thoughts of someone for whom words tricked and conjured and bled. And I found myself becoming resentful, I didn’t know why.

As I leafed through, I thought of The Bell Jar, and that night took it to bed. As others have said before me, it charts a descent into madness, though that is to put it somewhat crudely. Without too much of a stretch of the imagination it parallels Plath’s own sad end, in which she committed suicide at the age of thirty. Both Plath and her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, had glittering academic records, won scholarships, and secured the patronage of beneficent old women. Both wrote, largely poetry. Esther Greenwood, however, ten years younger, feels like she cannot write a novel yet because she has not had any real life experiences.

The Bell Jar starts with Esther Greenwood in New York, in the middle of a summer internship at a ladies’ magazine, during which she has several tragic, almost farcical episodes, that cause increasingly a sense of isolation and despair. Returning home, Esther finds she does not really know what to do with her life, and, for all her brilliant academic record, she cannot commit herself to a future, a career, or her long-term pseudo-boyfriend, Buddy Willard. Suddenly she cannot sleep, she cannot eat, and, most troubling for her, she cannot write. After several half-hearted suicide attempts, she writes a note to her mother saying she is going for a long walk. Instead she crawls into a crevice under her house, with a bottle of sleeping pills.

This novel became an important feminist book, dealing as it did with a fiercely independent young woman’s mind, sex, suicide, and the rejection of stereotypical female careers during the 1950s, but reading it, one also feels Plath has a disdain for any notion of female solidarity. As well as her wealthy benefactor Philomena Guinea, at the magazine she is under the probing eye of another older woman, editor Jay Cee. What do all these women see in her, she wonders – ‘they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them’. Other than her psychiatrist, Dr Nolan, who is in Esther’s eyes unconventional, every other female character is shown to be a different kind of someone she does not want to become. The fellow inhabitants of her ‘country club’ style asylum are treated with a bitter contempt or as if they are far off, foreign creatures. It is so unusual to read a book of this era with a female character declaring that her virginity was like a millstone around her neck; but, as we might by now expect, for Esther Greenwood the long-awaited sexual liberation is not exactly as imagined. The sad end of one of her asylum friends provokes little emotion from Esther but does, at least, seem to mark a sort of lifting of the bell jar, the distorting shroud that had descended onto Esther’s mind.

In the days I spent reading The Bell Jar I think my own bell jar regarding Plath has lifted. Considerably. She moves us, without laborious sentimentality. It is honest work that happens to dwell on death. This is a book about suicide and yet there is little sense that this was an introversion, self-pity. This is decidedly not the female counterpart of The Catcher in the Rye (first published in 1951). It would therefore be appropriate to end with Sylvia Plath in her own words during an interview with Peter Orr in 1962:

I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mini I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.

Plath clearly did not intend for us to see her writing as confined to the suffocation of the bell jar, narrow and introverted. During The Bell Jar she makes reference in places to the execution of American Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. It seems to speak of America’s own bell jar regarding the Cold War and the communist threat within America, largely driven by paranoia. That the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair only reinforces the symmetry, since Esther Greenwood is subjected to electric shock therapy herself. I think next week something a little… lighter. Any comments or observations, or recommendations for further reading, are greatly welcome.

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