Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Bell Jar / Sylvia Plath

4 out of 5 stars
Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.

Reading this book is like standing in a whirlpool, feeling the water pull at you, trying to draw you into its vortex.  This work is unnerving in its honesty and willingness to share the distressing details of a life that is running off the rails.  The confusion and fear are palpable.

There are tendencies towards depression that run through my family, and I have felt the cold fingers of depression laid on my forehead more than a few times.  There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.  It is a sobering thought.  

Like Plath, I came as an inexperienced country girl to the city (though not nearly so large a city as New York).  I had to find my way through the minefields of city life, university studies, social events, and eventually finding employment.  Also like her, I could usually make high academic marks if I paid even a little bit of attention to a subject.  Believe it or not, that is not helpful—someone who administered an aptitude test for me looked at the perfectly symmetrical marks that I had scored and said, “Oh my, you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up!”  No kidding, that was why I was taking the blessed test!  Like all the best oracles, it offered no certain advice.  “You can go any direction you choose, but you will have to choose,” reported the tester.  No help there with deciding where to aim myself; I might as well have consulted a fortune cookie.

It’s hard to find good advice on life’s decisions: what employment would you enjoy, how will you know when you find a good life partner, is everyone else having as difficult a time as I am?  We all have to manoeuver through them with minimal experience and hope for the best.  I am grateful that I didn’t have to fight the black beast at the same time during that phase of my life.  

I appreciate the “female-ness” of this book—trying to deal with not being taken seriously as a potential employee, student, even as a patient.  Knowing that you must appear “ladylike” in order to make a good impression and that your clothing choices can be more important that you are.  The choices that we have to make around sexuality (especially back in the day when there was little reliable birth control available and women were still judged by their “purity”).  The Bell Jar was written just as women were starting to strain against the straitjacket of the wife and mother role that they had been shoved into during the 1950s—Plath’s female voice seems startlingly honest for the time.

The Bell Jar ends on what seems to me to be a hopeful note, stepping into the doctors’ office to be released from hospital.  If only that feeling of hopefulness had held and Plath had been able to resist the pull of the grave—what might she have created?

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