This book is bound to make you feel alllll of the feelings. If you don’t know about Sylvia Plath, the author behind The Bell Jar, it’s best to imagine her as the Michael Jordan of depressed people. But in spite of it all—or rather, in my opinion, because of it all—this girl can write even better than Jordan can ball. Plath was an esteemed intellectual, collecting numerous prizes for her poetry and excelling academically. Her downward spiral began after a disappointing month in New York City where she served as guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine. Luckily, I’m ten months in and my only downward spiral occurred after one too many drinks walking down the never-ending staircase of my friend’s elevator-less apartment (lookin at you, Arturo, Matt, and Harold). Following a series of hang-ups during her city stint and an inhumane administration of electroshock therapy, Plath made her first suicide attempt by swallowing an entire bottle of sleeping pills and hiding in a crawl-space underneath her home. You would think that would do the trick; however, she was discovered and rescued three days later. Upon revival, Plath was institutionalized for her depression for six months and thereafter seemed to maintain a steadier emotional path. Fast forward nine years… at age thirty she was found with her head in the oven, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Because this blog is intended for both literature AND laughs—here’s a picture made in very poor taste that will probably piss people off:
[photo cred: Gina Renna]
The novel itself is labeled semi-autobiographical but the only differences I can decipher are name changes. It was published for the first time in American posthumously for fear that it would shame her loved ones who are blatantly present in the book. The Bell Jar follows Plath (Esther Greenwood) from her eager entry into New York to the day she departs from the mental institution. I knew what I was diving into with a Plath book, so I was surprised to see that the first third of the novel is not overtly depression-laden. This is precisely what makes the reading experience such an emotional roller coaster. Her depression creeps up on her insidiously until it is all-encompassing. At one point she claims, “I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it” (Plath, 77). The eyes of her self-proclaimed shortcomings glare menacingly at her in the foreground of a dark, indifferent world. She realizes that she is about to graduate from college… and she’s really only good at “doing college”! She frighteningly feels, “like a racehorse in a world without racetracks” (Plath, 77). As her future dissipates into a flat, bleak, desolate waste right before her eyes, a still numbness eerily stretches over her. She stops showering, stops changing out of her pajamas, and stops getting out of bed entirely despite her inability to sleep. Eventually, she can no longer focus and is thereby deprived of her love of literature. All of the distractions that were holding her intact disappear and she slowly unwinds until she unravels. She started with a smorgasbord of dreams and ambitions and ended with the glass shards of her shattered visions. Plath provides the metaphor of a prolific fig tree, extending in all different directions, while she stands there “starving to death, just because [she] couldn’t make up [her] mind which of the figs [she] should choose” (Plath, 77). Her paralyzation left her utterly drained inside, allowing her depression to fill and consume her completely. She “felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath, 3).
The above quote is one of my favorites from the book because it is proof that the novel is engaging from both a story-standpoint and writing ability. I’m convinced that all good writers are a little depressed. To write well, you must be truly in tune with yourself/your feelings and the people around you/their feelings; when you experience life in such a rich, intense way like that, you’re inevitably going to encounter a bit of depression because you feel sadness that much more palpably. As poet David Jones once said, “It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.” I personally love books that I can really relate to—that inexplicable moment of euphoria when you’re like damn, I know exactly what they’re describing! The only way an author can really accomplish that for the reader is by fully understanding humanity and the spectrum of emotions that accompanies being human.
For instance, I absolutely love going to Chili’s. The service is impeccable, the atmosphere is lively, the food is to die for, and they have excellent deals at the New Jersey location that I travel to on Sunday’s (because God knows why there is not a Chili’s in Manhattan). How would I write about my experience at Chili’s in a way that caters to both people who have and haven’t eaten there (God knows why there are people who exist who haven’t gone to Chili’s)? Ideally, I would want the Chili’s-attendees to read my piece and exclaim, hell yes, that’s exactly how I feel when I go. At the same time, I want to help people who haven’t eaten there understand what it could be like. You have to be able to evoke both imagination (for the non-Chili’s eaters) and truth (for the Chili’s eaters). In order to do that, you must be very in tune with your environment and emotional responses, both positive and negative. Plath is such a heart-wrenching writer because she speaks with the clarity of one who has suffered the pain. I believe that she can speak truth to those who have experienced depression while simultaneously painting a vivid picture for those who have not.
Some of you might be wondering about the book’s title. Her first verbatim usage is towards the end of the novel, when she characterizes herself as “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air” (Plath, 185). I love when books inconspicuously squeeze their title into the story. I felt like a giddy Peter Griffin in the “420” episode of Family Guy when the policeman busts in declaring, “I don’t appreciate drug addicts in my town! I’m a Family Guy” (“420”*). The bell jar Plath resided in left her rotting behind an acerbic, distorted lens with which to view the world. When she is set to leave the mental facility, she explains that now “the bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above [her] head. [She] was open to the circulating air” (Plath, 215). Herein lays my only problem with the novel. Now, I don’t buy into the romanticization of suicide à la Romeo and Juliet. But this woman went through a horrific, disturbing loss of the capacity to enjoy or even tolerate her life…and she somehow managed to give it all a tone of beauty by depicting her descent into madness so poetically. She does not do her ascent the same justice. While she made it clear that the bell jar hung above her precariously, I was never truly convinced that it even came off of her in the first place. By no means does this undermine the entirety of the novel, but it unfortunately does make the ending fall a little flat for me. I can only speculate that this was a reflection of Plath’s own misgivings in facing life again outside of the institution and that she did not yet know how to describe her feelings outside of the bell jar. Because of this, I give the novel 4 out of 5 camel humps. I hoped the book would never end because I wanted her to continue brilliantly describing her struggles. But when it did come to a close I was not persuaded that those struggles were diminishing, and I was left with a question mark that hung as negatively over my head as the bell jar allegedly hung over hers.
*Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1971. Print.
*“420” Family Guy. Fox. WXIA, Atlanta. 19 April 2009. Television.