The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
This is one of those books that I don’t know why I’ve never read.
There are several of them, and there are several reasons why I haven’t read them. (For instance: never read most of the great Victorian novels, never read Jane Eyre or Middlemarch or anything by Dickens, though I read Oliver Twist a year or two ago and I have Hard Times on my TBR shelf; never read much of the work of Faulkner or Joyce; haven’t read much of the great Russians, never read War and Peace, never read Crime and Punishment; never read Madame Bovary nor Lolita, never read Moby Dick. I could go on. And the reasons? I skipped a year of high school English; I went to a non-traditional college to study literature, where I took a class in Hong Kong literature and another in the films of Howard Hawks, but didn’t read a single Shakespeare play as an undergrad; neither of my parents are readers of the classics, so with their encouragement I read lots and lots of fantasy and science fiction.) This one I didn’t really know anything about. I know Sylvia Plath, know her story, at least the bare bones of it; I have grown to enjoy her poetry since I’ve read it in the last couple of years. But I never read her novel.
Until now. Until a friend and colleague of mine, who told me she was going to be teaching it to her Pre-AP students (who will become my AP students next year), when I said I’d never read it, said, “Oh, you have to!” And I said, “Okay.” And I went to our local used book store and I got myself a copy, and I read it.
Now I need to read it again.
It’s a good book. I can see both why it is now considered a great book, and why it became such a sensational book. For those who do not know, the book is largely autobiographical, and describes a time in Sylvia Plath’s life when she, to use the cliché, descended into madness. She had a breakdown, she attempted suicide, she was given shock treatment (Hey, it was the 1950’s, after all), and then she was institutionalized. That’s as far as the book goes, and Plath’s life story doesn’t go much farther: she moved to England, met and married the poet Ted Hughes, had two children with him, wrote this novel and some extraordinary poetry, and then, at the age of 31, she killed herself. The Bell Jar hadn’t been on the shelves for more than a year, and since it tells of something so intimate, made so simultaneously chilling and vital by the death of the author, it was an immediate bestseller. And then there was controversy regarding its American publication (It was initially published in England, to mixed reviews), because her mother believed that Sylvia would not have wanted the book published in the U.S. because many of the characters are recognizable from Sylvia’s life, and the book is not a kind one. But it was eventually published here, and with its crystal-clear depiction of mental illness, and of mental health treatment, and of society in the 1950’s and particularly how society treated young women at the time, it became an enormous bestseller and a classic.
The book is about a young woman who goes on an internship in New York City during summer break, for a month. It’s a little strange to read about how college worked then, because college now is so solidified: you start when you’re 18, you finish after four years with a bachelor’s degree, or after six years with a Master’s, or never if you pursue a PhD; but Esther, the protagonist, is 19, has finished her first two years of college and is about to enter her senior year. But this is also a time when she is caught between her dreams, which vary widely over the course of the book – she wants to be a writer; she wants to be a professor; she wants to be a magazine editor – and the need to have something solid and steady, which means she should learn shorthand so she can be a secretary. It’s a time when young ladies take classes in deportment. When everyone is so obsessed with marriage and with chastity before marriage that the unavoidably human obsession with sex means that no social interaction has to do with anything else: the boy that Esther has developed a relationship with – though he’s a shmuck and their “relationship” consists of him inviting her up to Yale for proms and then treating her like an inconsequential decoration that also serves as an audience for his ego – is derided as a hypocrite because he’s had sex and yet insists that Esther remain a good girl if they are ever to marry (which her mother desperately wants her to do, of course), and every date she goes on, she considers as a potential husband, or else a potential sexual partner. I suppose that not much has changed on that front, but I’m sorry, this virginity shit is ridiculously stupid.
And beside the point, though it and the need to have an active social life and be seen as popular and dating quality people (like a Yale man! How exciting!) are important elements of the book and of Esther’s life. But then the point becomes something else. It isn’t clear what happens, as I think it wouldn’t be; there isn’t a single traumatic moment, though Esther has some bizarre experiences and some extraordinary pressures to deal with. It begins to come to a head when she goes on several dates and outings towards the end of her internship with another girl in the program, a young lady named Doreen; Doreen has been having a sexual relationship with a charming rock DJ, who appears to have no decent friends and therefore hooks Esther up with jackasses – the last of which assaults her. She finishes her internship without any definite plans for her next step, for her last year of school or for the career afterwards, or for her social or family life; she simply goes home. She leaves all of her clothes in New York, and she goes home in a borrowed outfit.
Once Esther is home, things get worse. Her mother pressures her to move on, to date, to marry, to succeed; and Esther is drawing inward, instead. She goes through a severe depression, which is when her mother takes her to a psychiatrist, a complete shithead who soon recommends electroshock therapy. Because, y’know, it makes you feel better. Except it isn’t done right, and Esther feels agonizing pain during it, and then feels no better. That’s when she begins to think about suicide. She makes several half-hearted attempts, to drown herself, to hang herself, to cut her wrists, and then finally, she finds a place to hide and she takes an entire bottle of sleeping pills which she got because she can’t sleep due to her depression. She survives, and goes to a mental hospital, where things go back and forth between getting better and getting worse. And though I won’t spoil the ending further, I’ll just say: that’s how it goes throughout the rest of the book. It is never entirely clear if it is getting better, or if it is getting worse; when things seem to be going better, Esther’s narrative voice is not any happier or more comfortable. It never gets happy or comfortable again, all the way to the end. Though really, I’m not sure how happy or comfortable it ever was: this is not a happy, comfortable book. I think Plath was not a happy or comfortable woman.
What she was, was entirely honest, with crystal-clear perception, even if the things she was perceiving were not real. Though this book clearly stretches the boundary of fiction: when an author fictionalizes her own life, and describes accurately sensations and experiences that are not real, hallucinations and disassociated thoughts and feelings – is that fiction? Did she make it up? The writing is occasionally beautiful, haunting, poetic; mostly, though, it is so clear and easy to read and understand that you feel very much what Esther feels. I do not myself have experience with depression or suicidal ideation, but I’ve been close to people who have, so I recognize the accuracy of this depiction; and I understand more now than I did before I read the book. As a writer, and a devoted lover of the works of many authors who have gone through what Plath depicted (Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace are two of my favorites, along with several others who drank or drugged themselves to death, Poe and Dylan Thomas and so on, so on.) And though I plan to re-read it and look more carefully at the writing (Because this is a book that would go very well with others that I teach, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catcher in the Rye particularly), on the strength of one reading alone, I would highly recommend it.