Sylvia Plath: “Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.”
I was about 16 when I first read The Bell Jar and much like the heroine in Sylvia Plath’s novel “I was suppose to be having the time of my life” only I wasn’t. I was deeply troubled, conflicted, resentful, fragile, alone, adrift, contemptuous of everything and going slightly mad. Upon initial reading the book didn’t leave much of an impression, but I could definitely identify with its heroine, Esther Greenwood, not merely via the superficial coincidence of also being “a person with brown eyes and brown hair” but by feeling as if “everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.”
By the time I read The Bell Jar I was already familiar with Plath’s poetry and thus the slender picaresque relayed by a jolie-laide disenchanted with her big-city simulacrum of paradise did not entail the same vociferous puissance. Now, over a decade later, having just finished reading Sylvia’s opus again I have arrived at the same conclusion. And yet, I have enjoyed the book immensely: its polyphonic literary tone, its frank and caustic observations but most of all its autobiographical elements unifying the author and its heroine. It’s partly true then, I guess, that a book is nothing if not “the impression of its author’s experiences.” The Bell Jar though is more than that it is in fact a carefully re-worked, condensed and fictionalised version of Plath’s journals.
The story chronicles a sort of virile inner emptiness propelling its heroine into a state of complete mental dissociation from the world and all who inhabit it. Meditating on his own troubles John Cheever once wrote: “I am in a bell jar or worse since I seem to respond to nothing I see.” Esther Greenwood, on the other hand, is at the other extreme of the spectrum and thus responds to everything with painful sensitivity while trudging on through an increasingly darkening landscape of her life. It is impossible to dissimilate Plath’s voice from that of her heroine as the two are almost identical in their acutely cerebral ruminations, modest beginnings, academic success, interest in poetry, optimism in despair, elation in anomie, grief over the loss of a “German speaking” father, experiences of electrotherapy, numerous and identical suicide attempts and general preoccupation with death which, incidentally, comes to the fore in the opening sentence when Esther begins her story by saying: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.” The opening of The Bell Jar sets the tone for the rest of the book, auxiliary portents abound in the subtext of every page, and thus the reader is almost expected to know that things are set to go askew.
As the story progresses we witness Esther growing more irresolute and dejected not only about working on a ladies magazine, frequenting Bloomingsdale’s for her “patent leather shoes” and going to parties which make her feel like “a numb trolley-bus”, but also her predestined career as an editor for which she had spent most of her life “studying and reading and writing and working like mad”. And yet irrespective of Esther’s downcast outlook, her bemused demeanour, self effacing charm, rapier wit and penchant for peculiarity is intensely compelling. Her character, much like Plath’s own, is one who treats life as material for literature and thereby muses on a plethora of subjects personal and peripheral which range from chapter to chapter. Yet for all her precociousness Esther’s attitude toward life, sense of purpose, lack thereof, love and the opposite sex, while ostensibly cynical, is in fact naive. Eventually, Esther’s increasingly erratic behaviour – commencing with her throwing her clothes out the window into the “dark heart of New York” and culminating with her trying to bury herself – lands her in a psychiatric facility.
From there on in her madness takes over, accompanied by expert valetudinarians and shock therapy which makes for truly uncomfortable reading. Yet for all the differences between us I could relate to her. I could relate to feeling lost and going crazy and being “cynical as hell” and to her feelings of inadequacy and to her merciless self criticism and to her plight in trying not to let “the wicked city” get her down. I could relate because I was that girl. Re-reading The Bell Jar took me back to a time when I was…pretty much how I am today. Except I’m no longer 16, so maybe it’s time I grew up. Then again, I’m with Charles Bukowski in that the people who never go mad must lead terribly tedious lives.
It is on my shelf, and not read by me since I was in my late twenties. I must read it again.
I dip into her poetry from time to time. Though not to cheer myself up.
Thank you, as always, for a wonderfully written review.
The Bell Jar is one of the best things my literature professors foisted on me in college; I read it as a companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye. I always read it with a little bit of sadness, because of the path Sylvia’s life ultimately takes and because (with Sylvia’s poetry specifically) I’ve never been able to distinguish between the narrator and the poet–they’re one and the same.
This is so similar to my own reaction to The Bell Jar…your review was wonderful to read and makes me want to pick my copy up again (:
Reading the book, I found it easy to not identify with Esther solely on the basis I’m not female. And I have never felt in danger of requiring committal to a mental institution. But your review reminded me of my own naive cynicism and the sense of purpose that readily turns to disenchantment, self criticism and inadequacy. The only difference is that now I’m no longer a teenager it’s accompanied by a brooding nostalgia for those years, no matter how shit they felt like at the time.