Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, was first published in 1967.  Its chronicling of Esther Greenwood's coming-of-age intentionally corresponds to Salinger's treatment of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. The novel's frank and detailed description of mental illness was unusual for its time, although it does have some similarities to more current novels such as Girl, Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides; however, their styles are less literary.  Plath's talent for poetry was already recognized at the time of The Bell Jar's writing, and it comes through in her construction of prose as well.

So, is Esther Greenwood suffocating under a bell jar solely because of her mental illness, or is it partly due to her experience as a woman in the man's world of the 1950s?  She resists learning the secretarial skill of shorthand because, "the trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men...I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters."  Her observation that the other girls at her hotel "were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents... and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other" shows society's expectations of women at that time, as well as Esther's opinion of those expectations. Esther doesn't want to get married and have children; she doesn't want to exist solely as a function of her husband, but her efforts to write and to establish an identity as a writer are repeatedly derailed by her mental illness.

Some reviews state that The Bell Jar is very dark and can be difficult to read because it takes the reader on a journey into deep depression, but even as a person who has experienced long term depression, I did not find that to be the case. Perhaps that is because reading a description that takes up a few chapters of a book is far less depressing than being stuck in the real deal for months on end. Personally, I found it interesting to peer into another mind and see its similarities to and differences from my own.

Finally, I have to point out that those girls working at the magazine in New York with their shoes and purses and dates, chasing after money and status, were at least as crazy as Esther and me.  Maybe crazier.

depressed writer: Esther Greenwood
creep she finally dumps: Buddy Willard
relationship with mother: complicated, unhappy
father: born in a manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia (I love that line), now deceased
there was a lot of: being thwarted, inability to be the agent in one's own life, discordant relationships, superficiality, depression
there should have been more of: I would have liked to see the novel continue on to follow Esther as she becomes a writer, but it would have been more difficult to make a proper ending, and an epilogue would have been anticlimactic.
this book makes you want to: discover or revisit your life's goals, endure painful experiences knowing they lead to growth, allow all meaninglessness to fall away
this book makes you glad you don't have to: marry Buddy Willard or somebody like him, endure '50s style treatments for mental illness, eat 50s style meat and/or seafood salads

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