Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow.  There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people's eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

I totally forgot that I had read The Bell Jar.  Well, no, I didn't forget that I'd read it, I forgot to review it, and for whatever reason, as I went back over the books I needed to write about after I got back from my trip, it dropped out of my mental list.  That's a shame, because The Bell Jar is really fantastic.  I'm sorry, The Bell Jar.

As Meagan pointed out in her review from a couple years ago, The Bell Jar is almost an autobiographical work.  Its heroine, Esther Greenwood, is a stand-in for Plath herself, who also spent a time working for a magazine (Mademoiselle, in Plath's case) and who fretted over her career and romantic prospects, and then had a nervous breakdown and had to be briefly committed to an institution.  Keeping this in mind makes reading The Bell Jar a grim exercise, since shortly after it was published Plath committed suicide.  Such knowledge blunts the sharp humor of Esther's bungled attempts to kill herself, which seem as if they are detailed with the light touch of someone with a greater sense of distance from their previous feelings.

One of the really terrific things about The Bell Jar is the way in which Plath is able to blur the line between the everyday neuroticism of the first part, which seems very familiar to anyone trying to "make it" in academia, or the creative professions, or New York City, and the kind of mental illness that strikes Plath when she returns to her New England home in the second part.  In a famous passage from the first part, Esther compares her future to a fig tree:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

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.

I love this image, and it's easy to see the stamp of Plath's poetry on it.  I was impressed by the way that Plath manages to employ the distinct, stark imagery and detail of her poems without sacrificing a strong narrative voice.  The list of writers who are equally great poets and novelists is not very long, and I wouldn't hesitate to put her on it.  (Hardy, Lawrence, Plath... ?)  But look how easily the ennui and indecision of that passage transforms into a kind of paralysis:

The reason I hadn't washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.

I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like black shade.  Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see 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.

We read this passage with a sense of irony, thinking that the author recognizes the strange horror of these thoughts, shares an outsider's perspective with us.  And that may be true.  It may be true that Plath, like Esther sometimes can, can see these images with an outsider's perspective, and yet they doubtlessly became unbearable for Plath in the end.  What she left behind is a great, horribly frank and terrifying novel, perhaps the greatest record we have of mental illness.

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