[TW: discussion of depression and suicide ahead]
Do you ever read a book that just feels important, even if you don’t quite realise why at the time?
Obviously The Bell Jar is regarded by many as a hugely important book, whether for its value as a historical record detailing the state of things in the 1950s or as a profound look inside its author Sylvia Plath’s head, or because of its golden place as a quintessential piece of feminist literature. Or just because of personal relevance, as it is to people I know who have read it. I suppose it’s just the kind of book that affects you, and whatever form that takes varies from reader to reader.
Firstly, it’s fairly easy to see why it’s almost the go-to feminist novel of the 20th century: The Bell Jar is basically an elegant list of all the things that can go wrong in a woman’s life, because of or exacerbated by the prejudices in modern society. The fact that a lot of it is still relevant and recognisable now, some 53 years after it was published (and roughly 63 after it was set, as it’s written looking back on the 1950s), rather explains why it’s stood the test of time, as well as being a little frightening.
The Chronicle of Awful Things begins when college student Esther Greenwood gets a summer internship at a fashion magazine in New York, and proceeds to dip her toes in a world of glamour while pursuing her dream to be a writer. If you think it sounds exactly like The Devil Wears Prada, you’d be right so far, but mentioning things like that seem to make academics and hardcore fans very grumpy, so we’ll come back to that. Esther soon realises that New York City seems to be crawling all over her like some neon-lit, simmering smoggy slime, and she’s not interested in fashion, or writing, or hanging out with various adorable but ultimately fake friends who continuously abandon her. In fact, she’s not really interested in much at all, least of all her own life, which culminates in a gradual spiral then crash into depression and a suicide attempt when she moves home (which does not help) for the remainder of the summer.
The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel, and was published shortly before her own suicide in 1963. Like The Sun Also Rises it’s effectively an embellished memoir with the names changed, which blurs the lines between whether to view it as autobiography or literature. I think it’s perfectly capable of being both because Plath writes so damned nicely—I haven’t had the opportunity to read a lot of her poetry, which she’s more famous for, but her prose deserves every bit as much of praise. The description is wonderful, the text is peppered with sly, black humour and sharp observations, and she continuously drops ponderous paragraphs that make you sit back and go “yes, that is exactly what that’s like!” whether you knew you felt that way or not.
Maybe that’s one of the successes—and/or controversies—of the book: it rang true to people, especially women, and was a voice noting down all the awfulness pressing on them in the era it was written. It’s not entirely a linear story, in fact Esther’s narration loops back and forth in time and off on tangents, and sometimes just sits and thinks, but in that way it almost feels truer. Not quite stream of consciousness, but something like a diary entry—you can get the sense that the author/narrator has sat down and started scrawling this out and suddenly can’t stop their thoughts, and are just jotting them down in the pattern they emerge.
Which is possibly what happened, and Plath is amusingly on-the-nose about it in one part where Esther contemplates spending her summer break writing a novel. The protagonist will be me, she declares, but thinly veiled, and her adventures will be mine but jazzed up with better prose. It’s almost impossible, knowing the book’s half-fictional nature, to separate Plath from Esther, which in my case only made the book more frightening. Someone actually lived through all this, felt these feelings, suffered this pain? Well, of course they did: thousands of women did, whether we’re talking about the misguided attitude to mental health (featuring shock treatment—delightful!) or the general sexism of the era. And, perhaps abstractly or not so abstractly, people still do today.
Given its deep, emotional centre and dealings with big themes like this, it’s no surprise that people want to distance the novel from any ties to “chick lit” and keep it high, high above those surging shiny tides of silly books about women. Which is where the snobbery comes in—in its greatest form about the most recent edition’s cover—which, while I can certainly understand their worries (mostly I just fear that people might accidentally get horribly confronted or possibly triggered if they don’t realise, from lack of advertising, that the book is about depression), I feel is unfounded.
People are on a constant mission to keep it safe from such frivolous, feminine associations, when really, the fact that it’s feminine is the entire point. It’s a woman’s story about a woman’s life, relationships, and struggles within her mind, and one that’s well told, and that’s where its power lies. If it wasn’t so intrinsically tied to Sylvia Plath—and indeed hadn’t been so hyped up by its association with her death—I’d be interested to see if it retained the same place in literary history and book snobbery.
It’s not a perfect book by any means: its non-linear, paper-plane-loops style of narration can be muddling at times, and some of the symbolism and moral messages are jerked around by virtue of it being true to life. For example, Esther spends the entire book living in fear of having children and being reduced to everything society makes of a mother, but the reader knows she eventually has a baby because she mentions it early on.
What made her change her mind is not part of the story and thus it’s a confusing detail that kind of makes it look like she was wrong in her thinking, the same way nearly bleeding to death after having sex for the first time kind of feels like a moral “I told you so” to the wanton heroine, which I don’t think Plath would have set out to do. But it’s what happened, I can only assume, and so it went into the story. That’s the trouble with real life, it rarely translates neatly into fiction, leaving the reader with an open ending because, well, life goes on, doesn’t it?
At least, even with its flip-flopping moral code and lack of closure, The Bell Jar’s ending is a little bit hopeful, showing Esther ready to leave the care facility and at least try to continue with her life. It was reassuring enough, having seen her go through everything she did, from an attempted rape to bungled shock therapy to being constantly belittled by her boyfriend to the most horrifying scene in the book, to me, where she was swimming in the ocean with friends and tried to drown herself. They weren’t that far away, but they were carrying on oblivious as she tried and tried to dunk herself under the ocean and die, without success. So she swam back, and acted as though everything was normal.
It was like sharing a dark, heart-deep secret, learning about that moment, and it’s stuck with me ever since I read it. As confronting as the book can be, I was completely roped into it and wanted to hear all of Esther/Sylvia’s observations and anecdotes and worries, painting a solid, terrifying picture of her life and life in the early ‘50s. Historically, it was fascinating, and emotionally it was a terrific rollercoaster. I can definitely see why this is a classic to so many people—academics, feminists, ordinary readers who might have seen themselves in Esther in whatever way. It’s also, I’m reliably informed, an incredibly good reference for understanding what depression feels like, so if you ever want to experience it second-hand for an empathy exercise, I’d recommend giving it a go.