Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

"And I knew in that spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat."

She's quite blunt, that Esther Greenwood.

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's thinly veiled autobiographical account of her first nervous breakdown and the events leading up to it. Looking back, it is easy to imagine that Esther Greenwood's views on marriage were unconventional for a 1950s college girl. And that was probably somewhat true.

The Bell Jar begins during Esther Greenwood's summer as a Junior Editor to a women's magazine in New York City, before her senior year of college. Esther has been told her whole life what a brilliant and talented writer she is. She, perhaps rightly, feels that all doors are open to her until she meets with an influential female editor at the magazine, who paints a picture of the difficulty young women have breaking into the literary world. Despite this, Esther mostly still feels secure that she will be able to make her career as a writer.

Throughout the summer, Esther maintains a superficial countenance of interest in her job and the other girls. Her mental break is only mildly foreshadowed by Esther's growing sense of hopelessness about her future. She is "practically engaged" to a boring and unfaithful medical student, but any pessimism is still tempered by the plans for her writing career. It is only when she returns home from New York to find that she has been rejected from a writing class due to the quality of her work that the darker parts of her mind begin to best her.

After returning home, Esther does not wash or change her clothes for weeks. She suffers insomnia and cannot eat, think or write clearly. She has not slept for two weeks straight when her mother brings her to a psychiatrist for shock treatments, which hurt and terrify Esther. She plots to kill herself, imagining a variety of ways and discarding them one by one: too bloody, too uncertain, too difficult. Finally, Esther disappears, only to be found huddled in a crawlspace in her mother's basement, barely alive after an overdose of sleeping pills. Only when checked into an asylum, the setting for the book's final chapters, does Esther begin to heal. She finds that the electroshock therapy, administered correctly by the gentle Dr. Nolan, delivers an antidepressant effect, lifting the mental "bell jar" she feels trapped inside.

The Bell Jar is mostly autobiographical. Plath attended Smith College on scholarship, graduating in 1954. The summer before, she served as a junior editor to Mademoiselle magazine. That same summer, Plath was rejected from Frank O'Connor's Harvard writing class, an event which is thought to have precipitated her first suicide attempt.

This book's immediate success likely had a lot to do with the fact that it was first published over a decade after the book's events took place, in January 1963. The early 1960s had a very different feel than the early 1950s, a difference felt acutely by British and American women. 1963 was a watershed year for the feminist movement. The publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique that year is popularly credited with ushering in the "Second Wave" of feminism. 1963 was also the year that Plath committed suicide, one month after the novel's publication.

It was in this historical context that Plath's only novel was first read by a generation of women, who applauded it and fought for it's U.S. release. In reading it for the first time now, in 2009 at the age of 24, I can relate to many of Esther/Sylvia's fears. Esther imagines her life as a fig tree, with dozens of figs, each representing a different life choice: marriage and children, becoming a poet or an editor, traveling; as Esther frets about which fig to choose, they begin to blacken and die and fall off the tree, one by one, her choices narrowing as she struggles to decide. I know that I've felt overwhelmed at times imagining the way my life might unfold. I would probably regard anyone my age that didn't feel that way as suspect.

I really enjoyed this book. If my perception weren't clouded by the fact that Sylvia Plath did eventually succeed in taking her life, I'd probably see the ending as hopeful and the period covered in the book as an anomaly in an otherwise charmed life. I think that Esther's feelings of confusion as she confronts her future are felt today by both men and women. I don't see The Bell Jar as a purely feminist treatise, although it is sometimes lumped in that genre.


Amanda said...

This is one of my favorite books. Being bipolar myself, it was very easy to relate to Esther during certain times of her illness.

Christopher said...

My grandmother used to swear by electroshock therapy.

Meagan said...

i must have been blogging this with one eye open. i realized that my first sentence did not make sense. amended.

She's QUITE blunt. In a good way.

Brooke said...

The Bell Jar will always be one of my favorites.