I first heard about The Bell Jar in college in one of the old forum websites I frequented. According to a very intelligent forum poster, she said that this book is something that mirrors the internal struggles of a troubled woman. It was true but as I read it I realized that it was so much more than that. This pseudo-autobiographical novel written by Sylvia Plath is one of the most simple and affecting novels I’ve read this year. This was Plath’s only novel, and this novel allowed me to get inside the head of one of the world’s most brilliant writing geniuses.
Shockingly, I found myself in some of the pages, able to relate to some of the things she wrote, whether that is a good or a bad thing. The indecisiveness, the foibles of living as an urban young woman setting out in her career, the sheer anguish of just existing were all there and I felt the prose speaking to me out of the depths: “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.”
The entire novel is really written by a woman, and it was written in a way that can never be rewritten otherwise. From the most banal to the most brutal of things, Plath expressed her innermost thoughts in the way that only she can. In one chapter, she had the character of Esther take a warm bath and ruminate on her existence and problems: “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”
The novel began with Esther Greenwood’s very successful stint as a young professional who won a prestigious contest in a New York fashion magazine. Then it developed into the degenerative claims of her mental illness to her life and the initial signs that revealed its existence: “After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.”
The illness pervaded the character’s entire being. The very graphic representation of the treatment or interventions of her mental illness were written in a way that only a true psychiatric ward insider can fully describe. Her train of thought was solidly depicted in all the chapters and it was superimposed in the backdrop of the tumults during Plath’s time of writing.I can almost smell and feel Esther’s presence, as if she was painted beside me by Plath’s words. I can almost smell the electric smoke that came out of the shock treatments, the lurid antiseptic scent in the mental hospital, and the very scary stench of a person who has decided not to take a bath for full month.
The structure of the novel itself is quite punctured as well, and got particularly chaotic in the middle when the illness started to take its course on Esther Greenwood’s life. The organized linear plotting was observed in the first few chapters, but the middle chapters unveiled numerous flashbacks and sometime after her first psychiatric session with Dr. Gordon, I was a little disoriented with the timing of events. But it was fully engaging and beautiful, something that I could not put down and something that you can labor to read in a single sitting.
I also read about the circumstances of Plath’s life when she wrote this book, and I was amazed that she was able to juggled her responsibilities as wife to Ted Hughes, mother of their kids, and intense writer of poems. She lived on a shoestring even when she had the Eugene Saxton grant for writing this book. For an author who is extremely respected as a Fulbright scholar, summa cum laude, Eugene Saxton fellowship grantee, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Plath unveiled the most vulnerable parts of herself in this creation of hers– the unpalatable parts that make her fully human.
Disguising the horrid details in her fiction, she illustrated that writing from a place of pain and defect is fuel for her art, that she is fatally mortal in spite of the literary goddess status that she has become to us now: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
It was not all gruesome although darkly comic. There was an implication of achieving hope and a positive note as the character proceeded to recover even when others have not successfully done so: “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice–patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”
Unfortunately, this revival of the main character in the book did not resonate fully with how the author’s life ended. She committed suicide around a month after The Bell Jar was published… She did not stay on living long enough to see what a legend this novel has become and how it has later served as an emblem for urban young angst.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”
But I guess what she called a bad dream was not so bad given the immortal respect they have given her work. Surely I hope there will be more writers like her in this age but will not resort to succumbing to the hopeless despair of erecting one’s tombstone too early.