Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

I am sorry I waited so long to read The Bell Jar. I had some vague idea that I would not like it, that it would be full of anguished cries from someone long dead.

Instead it is a short, clearly-written account of a young woman's descent into what some call "madness" but what Plath herself described as a "breakdown", and her subsequent move back into the real world again. It is written with a cynical yet hopeful kind of humor, an intelligence that sees perhaps too far. The story is autobiographical, with changes in character and detail.

Plath's heroine, Esther Greenwood, wins a summer trip to New York, along with several other hopeful ambitious young women, to work as an assistant editor on a major magazine and live dormitory-style in a hotel with the other women. Esther is deeply aware of how she might be expected to revel in this unique opportunity, yet she finds it difficult to play the part. She wants nothing more than to become a respected published writer, and all her years of hard work have brought her here, where she can take advantage of the connections and the knowledge of the editor, and where she can enjoy the chance to experience New York as only a young woman can. Yet she increasingly feels frustrated and disconnected and starts to lose her sense of the future. Toward the end of her stay she has difficulty dredging up the ambition that brought her there.

She returns to her home in a small town in Massachusetts in the fall, where she learns that she was not accepted for a special writing program. She lives alone with her mother, sleeping in the same room, and her sense of ennui expands until she stops eating, can't sleep, doesn't bother to change her clothes or wash herself. After a dramatic suicide attempt she lands in an institution.

Here is where we learn how it felt to be on the inside of her brain as others tried to help. And here is where we learn of the shock and insulin treatments and the drugs. Ultimately, considering how much damage these treatments can do, she somehow comes out of it and takes the first step back to a "normal" life, all the time wondering when she will again face this other self.

I was struck by Esther's rather romantic longing for a man at the same time as she was recognizing the conflict between being a wife and mother and being a published poet. It was as if a part of her longed for the normalcy she had read and heard about all her life (but had not in fact experienced in her own family) but she felt that if she gave in to the fantasy she would destroy the brilliance within her.

As I only know the basic outlines of her life and death I can't help but wonder if it was this conflict that eventually ended Plath's life. I imagine her trying desperately to write and simultaneously take care of two small children, especially after her separation from her husband. Did it seem like there was no future beyond this, that it was like a prison of her own making? I am now so curious that I am going to hunt down the book of poetry she was writing when she died and I am going to find out more about her life.

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