The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
I read this first when I was a completely happy-go-lucky teenager. When my heroes were Rhett Butler and Howard Roark. When I took feminism for granted, when there were no niggling doubts in my head about career or marriage or the future. So of course, I couldn’t quite get my head around The Bell Jar. Esther was a strange heroine, much too melancholic, not liking anyone much, not particularly likeable either. She was the demographic I wanted to be - the independent working girl in the big, bad city. But she showed me a side to this that I just wasn’t prepared to see. So I gave up on the book.
Decades later, I re-visit this. And understand why it resonated so much with so many. Esther is so tangible you can almost reach out and touch her. Her sense of being alone in the midst of the whirlwind that is New York, of the futility of living a life that must ultimately lead to death, of wanting to end the whole rigmarole once and for all… all this delineated so painstakingly, it leaves a mark.
Reading it, you know it is real. Because you know Plath and her history. And the realness of it makes it horrific. Especially since you know that at various points in time, you have had similar thoughts, with varying degrees of intensity. “I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was like sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspectives of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”
Growing up is stressful. There are careers to be chosen and husbands to be obtained, decisions to be made and disappointments to be experienced. Esther blanks them out, goes into the shell of the bell jar and when that happens in the fifties, you are taken to doctors who are unsympathetic, put through treatments like painful electric shocks and locked up in institutions where there is little recourse. It is a bit of a scary world and as a reader you experience the horror with Esther, not being able to take your eyes off the descent into madness.
But there is redemption in the form of Dr. Nolan who seems to get Esther in a way she hasn’t been before. And by the end of the book Esther is seeing glimpses of hope in a world gone blank and dark. She is once again looking to live. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” She is returned, bruised and a bit broken, but whole again. “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice - patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”
Of course, we know of Plath and of the briefness of the redemption. The Bell Jar was published after she killed herself at the age of 31. We know of the sometimes-beautiful poetry she wrote and the hagiography her death engendered, the feminist interpretations of her works and the almost larger-than-life figure she became after her death. And given all that hype that surrounds her, The Bell Jar is surprisingly a quiet little book, an intimate portrait of a young girl’s descent into a personal hell and her subsequent climb out of it. It reminds you of how little it takes to turn that ennui you feel, like Emily Dickinson, when you see that certain slant of light, into an illness you can possibly never recover from. You read The Bell Jar and realize how lucky you are.