I discovered Sylvia Plath’s work in high school. My twin sister was a huge fan of Plath’s poetry and read voraciously everything published at that time (late 1980’s). I stole into her library and read Plath’s book of complete poems as well as her posthumously collected short stories and diary excerpts Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams. My sister read it so often that the binding fell apart and she put it in a plastic bag. I still have that book, plastic bag and all, on my bookshelf. And, of course, I read her copy of Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar.
As a teenager, I read and reread the book so many times the narrative comes back to me like dictation. My admiration for Plath at that time was overwhelming. I had never read a writer who was so brutally honest about her experiences as a woman and an oppressed one at that in both her poetry and fiction. Later, when I was doing undergraduate work in English, I learned about confessional poetry and the prose quality of this genre of poetry, the way the poet exposed his or her life experiences, including those parts of life normally not considered “appropriate” for poetry. Confessional poetry became a platform for women poets to express their experiences as women well before the feminist movement.
Last month, one of my Goodreads book clubs chose The Bell Jar for their reading list. Even though I had a used copy of the book sitting on my shelf for years, I hadn’t had a chance to pick it up again. I was thrilled to dive into the novel after more than twenty year.
I talked about the value of experiencing a piece of art, whether a book, painting, or film, the second time around here. The Bell Jar was no exception for me. Even though the book still resonates, I see the book, and especially the main character, Esther Greenwood, in quite a different light.
I read a while back Plath had written the novel with the goal of getting the kind of fame and success every writer dreams of. Like many authors, she wanted a balance of art and popularity and the novel was intended to fulfill the latter. I don’t know if this is true or not but one thing that strikes me about the book’s style and voice is how it mimics a cross between the existentialist and postmodernist fiction popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Plath began writing the novel in 1961 and it was published in 1963). That authors are influenced by the fiction of their time is no surprise. But the tone of the novel seems to negate the unique voice and style of Plath’s poems.
Even though the novel is semi-autobiographical, modeled after Plath’s experience working for the magazine Mademoiselle in the 1950’s as a college student and her subsequent first attempt at suicide and psychiatric institutionalization, the story seems distant and emotionally removed. This isn’t a matter of an author gaining distance from her own experiences but more a deliberate attempt to copy the voice of such male writers as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, and Paul Bowles. Throughout the book, I felt how Esther is cynical and blasé about what was happening to her even in the height of her mental breakdown. It almost gives the feeling Plath was attempting to be satirical and ironic about serious subjects like suicide and rape but she doesn’t quite pull it off. Her description of the variety of ways Esther plays with suicide until she decides what method to use, though meant to be humorous, comes off as icy and even a little bit snarky to me. For example, when Esther asks her blind date how he would commit suicide, he answers he would do it with a gun. Her reaction is more calculated than emotional:
“I was disappointed… A fat chance I had of laying my hands on a gun. And even if I did, I wouldn’t have a clue as to what part of me to shoot at…. I’d already read in the papers about people who’d tried to shoot themselves, only they ended up shooting an important nerve and getting paralyzed, or blasting their face off, but being saved, by surgeons and a sort of miracle, from dying outright… The risks of a gun seemed great.” (Plath, location 2574-2580)
Esther’s callousness and the fact she speaks of a rather intimate subject with a man she has just met contradicts the emotional passion and astuteness of poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”, the latter poem also about suicide.
Similarly, the descriptions of Esther’s behavior and the behavior of those around her in psychiatric hospitals later in the book mirror that of the “crazy people” depicted to exaggeration in films and books of the same period. Make no mistake – I do not question the outrageous treatments and lack of respect many people, especially women, experienced in mental health institutions of the time. There is plenty of documentation of this. But there are times when it seems like the narrative leans more towards hyperbole and melodrama. For example, Esther is hospitalized at first in a city psychiatric institution and in one scene, she behaves like a brat when a nurse sets a tray on her bed:
“A heavy naughtiness pricked through my veins, irritating and attractive as the hurt of a loose tooth. I yawned and stirred, as if about to turn over, and edged my foot under the box… ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It was an accident.’… The second nurse fixed me with a baleful eye. ‘You did it on purpose. I saw you.’” (Plath, location 2985)
Whether this really happened or not, since the book is autobiographical, is beside the point and perhaps Plath took the kind of poetic license writers allow themselves when writing fiction based on fact. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, people with mental illness were expected to behave in certain ways and books and films depicting mentally ill people did little to dispel the myth of the “crazy person”.
When I first read the book, I saw Esther as a heroine of sorts, a woman struggling to carve her own identity while constantly surrounded by restricting messages of what it meant to be a woman in her time. I also appreciated her endurance through the questionable and sometime horrific treatments she received in the hands of so-called “professionals” in the psychiatric hospitals in which she was committed. I still see these strengths in the book. In fact, I see more the feminist elements of the book now, though, of course, feminism did not exist in Plath’s time. One well-quoted line from the book, especially among feminist enthusiasts, is Esther’s admission she hates the idea of serving a man. Esther’s reaction to her mother’s solid if conventional advice to learn typing and shorthand goes further: “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (Plath, location 1360). Esther doesn’t just want to be independent, she wants to be powerful.
I mentioned earlier Plath’s attempts at satiric fall short when speaking of mental illness and suicide, but there is some humor in the way Esther depicts the man with whom she is involved before the book opens, Buddy Willard. Esther successfully ridicules his arrogance and patriarchal superiority. Her reaction to his genitals when he exposes them to her is by now almost classic hyperbole:
“[H]e just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” (Plath, location 1254)
Esther’s brutal honesty is perhaps one of the most endearing things about her character. But her honesty sometimes turns nasty and unreasonable critical. For example, when she finds out Buddy isn’t a virgin, her reaction is a little overboard, even though the double-standard regarding sexual experience (men should have it before marriage and women should not) was the norm in the 1950’s when the book takes place. She calls him a hypocrite and explains why later in the book with a reasoning that seems, at best, a little overreacting:
“What I couldn’t stand was Buddy’s pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitress and must have felt like laughing in my face.” (Plath, location 1294)
In other words, she takes the fact Buddy slept with another woman well before he met her as a personal attack and she is bothered by it not because he’s not a virgin but because she interprets his behavior as making fun of her own lack of sexual experience.
I do admit the character of Esther Greenwood didn’t arouse my sympathy and admiration as it did twenty-odd years ago. But I still champion the book for its honest look at the conflicting emotions many young women just out of college and looking to start their lives felt, being told how to run their lives as “true women” and wanting more (a conflict I discuss in the context of two Bette Davis films of the 1950’s here). I still feel it belongs on the list of modern classics.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. HarperCollins e-books, 2015 (original publication date: 1971). Kindle digital file.