Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

Last year Harper Perrenial inaugurated their wonderful limited Olive Editions with three titles: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, and Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh.  I wasn’t much interested in the latter two titles, but the Olive Editions got me to finally read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I’d picked up and put down in book stores so many times before.  This year, they’re at it again.  They’ve just release Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Na — what?  Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation??!  I guess there’s nothing in the term “Olive Editions” that delineates any set criteria, so we’ll have to trust that Plath, Pynchon, and Schlosser belong somehow in the same limited edition release.  At any rate, for the second year in a row they got me to finally purchase two books that have been on my “I should have read that by now” list for years, the Plath and the Pynchon (I’ve actually already read — and taught from — the Schlosser; hello former students of rhetorical analysis!).

The-Bell-Jar

I love the simplicity of these covers, and I found that for once I genuinely wanted to read The Bell Jar (1963, UK; 1971, US) for its content and not just because I felt I should for the sake of some feeling of completion.  What little of Plath’s poetry I’ve read, I’ve never really connected with, though I had the misfortune of being introduced to her in an awkwardly emotionally felt, terrible reading of “Daddy” that horribly emphasized the “oo” sounds running through that poem (I have since read the poem several times, and it is much better in my mind, but that first reading still haunts me, truly).  So I’d pretty much avoided Plath through the years and cast The Bell Jar aside as a depressing bit on angst and suicide by someone who should have stuck to poetry.  I thought it must be one of those pieces of art that has lasted mostly because of the author’s suicide, which occurred shortly after the book was released in the UK to unfavorable reviews.  I’ve admitted to it before, so my ignorance should now come as no suprise to you.  Hopefully my ignorance when it comes to Sylvia Plath is on its way out the door; during and after reading The Bell Jar, I have become fascinated by Sylvia Plath and plan to read more by and about her.  A great place to start was this excellent (and refreshingly long) New Yorker article.

When I opened this book, I was surprised at how quickly the story wrapped me up, both because I was compelled by the substance and enchanget by its style.  There’s something youthful and poetic about it.  Here are the portentious first lines:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.  I’m stupid about electrocutions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read in teh papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.  It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

In the first half of the novel we meet Esther Greenwood, a talented and hardworking young woman in 1953.  That summer she was given the opportunity to spend a month in New York, all expenses paid, to intern at a large magazine.  She lives in a hotel with a bunch of other young women, all of whom have promise — but for what?  Her whole life she gotten the highest grades, has garned scholarships, and has been noted as a brilliant writer.  Interestingly, for her the question isn’t whether or not she can achieve her dreams — even in 1950s America — but rather which dreams she should choose to follow.  For her generation of women (and while much has changed since, this hasn’t changed much), choices were mutually exclusive.

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 another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, 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.

Not that any of us would have a great shot at achieving all of these dreams in one lifetime, and Plath doesn’t blame all of the problems here on Esther’s sex.  However, sex does play another role in Esther’s frustrations.  She’s tired of hypcrits, typically men, who profess to be virtuous and clean but have had a secret life of sex.  Esther hasn’t had sex yet, but the man she always wanted to marry has.  That in and of itself wasn’t the problem; the problem was that he lived as if he hadn’t; or, in other words, he led people to believe that he deserved a virtuous young woman in return for his virtuous life.  And this is the world.  Esther gets increasingly frustrated and despondent.  The situation is exacerbated when Esther learns she was not accepted into an exclusive class taught by a famous author.  She decides to drop out of the program, maybe out of the school.  She attends therapy when she admits to her mother that she cannot sleep.  The male doctor fails to understand her.  Frightened to return to him, she tells her mother she will not go back, and her mother says “I knew you’d decide to be all right.” 

But she is not all right.  In the second part of the book, we witness her descent into (or the descent upon her of) depression and madness.  I think it’s a strong point of the book that Plath doesn’t present as the proximate cause anyone in particular (the mother, the misdiagnosis, the boyfriend, the patriarchal society).  Rather, all of these elements stand for themselves, and we are left to wonder which contributed, and to what extent, to the downfall of this promising young woman.

Her downfall is increasingly disturbing to read as she begins thinking about ways to take her own life.

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 ears 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.

This chillingly disassociated language really works well to emphasize the disconnect between Esther and the world around her, the extent to which madness and depression numbed her to life.  Like Sylvia Plath (this novel has many autobiographical ties), at this young age Esther almost succeeds in taking her own life.  However, she is found, rescued, and institutionalized, something almost as painful to read about as her bout with suicide.

If any of you have, like me, put off reading The Bell Jar for whatever reason, let not that reason be because the book does not serve on its own merits.  It might not have near the fame had Plath not put the final punctuation mark on it with her own suicide, but it would still be worth reading.

7 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

  1. I avoided reading The Bell Jar for a long time, as I assumed it would be dark and disturbing. I was actually surprised by how light and easy to read it was. I didn’t find it depressing at all.

  2. I read Plath in high school (fortunately not as part of the curriculum) – and have been meaning to re-read it again for years. I remember this one amazing passage at the end where she describes the bell jar lifting and fresh air entering as it’s raised. I wonder how much of that paraphrase is accurate and how much I can attribute to a decades old memory?

    Word of caution: reading up on Plath’s life is fraught with pitfalls (sorry, couldn’t stop myself!). She’s been appropriated by multiple groups – so everyone tries to twist her into what best fits their personal agendas. Add to it that Ted Hughes’ has been in charge of the Plath estate (probably not the best choice for multiple reasons) and the whole thing becomes incredibly murky. I found The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm interesting, and might be a good place to start as it deals with much of this. Also, I’ve always meant to read Hughes’ Birthday Letters – his collection of poems on Plath. My advice is to avoid the movies as best you can.

  3. Sorry – typo…. Ted Hughes’ sister has been in charge of the Plath estate.

  4. Kerry says:

    You make a strong case that this should go on my 2010 TBR. Plus, the cover of this edition is beautiful. I tend to like dark works and I loved the quotes you provided. That’s it. It’s on the TBR. Thanks.

  5. Trevor says:

    Sorry I’ve been away from the comments for so long! Tolmsted, thanks for the tips on where I can pick up more perspectives on Plath. I’m not sure I’ll devote a large amount of time on it — not now anyway; that New Yorker article was just the right amount to soothe my curiosity about Plath and Hughes’ involvement in her estate. That doesn’t take care of the problem of limited perspective though, does it.

    Kerry, I look forward to your thoughts. I don’t know when I would have read it were it not for the Olive Edition. Let’s try to make sure Harper has a reason to do it again next year!

  6. I read it in school, which is actually a great time to read it, and definitely enjoyed it. I think your review really brings out its strengths actually, particularly the often unsettling language. Her background as a poet definitely shows through.

    I’m looking forward to your take on The Crying of Lot 49, I wrote that up myself recently and was very impressed by it.

Leave a Reply