I have always avoided The Bell Jar.
There are certain things that I just never wanted to fool around with and The Bell Jar was one of them. What if it hit too close to experiences of myself or those around me? What if reading The Bell Jar ended with me trapped within The Bell Jar?
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Despite these misgivings, I decided to pick up my untouched copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar this weekend and give reading it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by some things, disturbed by others, and I purposely avoided researching anything about Sylvia Plath beyond what I already knew. I had known from the beginning that she had ended her life, which made me think that The Bell Jar was likely semi-autobiographical, but beyond that I had nothing to base my presumptions on.
In The Bell Jar we follow Esther and her crisis of identity as the foundation she had built for herself over the years begins to crumble. What’s beautiful about The Bell Jar is that there’s a lot of descriptions for what is happening, but very little explanation as to why it happens. It’s a stark look at what depression can be for people (speaking on a broad level) and by never quite naming the why of it, it circumvents the idea that depression springs from a single incident or mood. While that can be the case for some people, depression can also be inexplicable which only deepens the frustration.
Esther lives in the beginning in a bustling world, New York City, with friends surrounding her and parties that she can go to. She works at a magazine and describes being showered with gifts from them. The entire beginning of the novel sets her up as a young woman with many prospects. She’s intelligent, responsible, and well-liked by her boss. Esther could have been portrayed as the naive child-like bumpkin coming into a big city as we’ve seen in other novels, but she’s clever and perceptive both about the world and the people around her.
There is a weariness to Esther that makes her feel older than her peers and when the paradigm that she views her life through shifts, her interactions with other people shift too. As described later on in the novel, her life isn’t bereft of the opportunities in front of her, but paralyzed by them:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. 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.”
This is part of, what to me, made Esther so intriguing. She stands on a precipice that no one else can see. To her, there is nothing but a bleak landscape in front of her. There are happy endings, but for her, they blink out of existence as soon as she focuses her attention against them. It can be hard for people who are struggling with depression to push themselves out of the paradigm that they’re stuck in, to not look around and see that that the world is so full of failures that it’s better to not waste your time trying.
The “Why” of something is what tends to fascinate people the most. Our actions, when connected with a why, can give people an insight to our thinking and the rationale behind it. By denying us the “why” in The Bell Jar, Plath mimics not only the confusion that a loved one would have when confronted by someone who has suicidal urges, but the inward confusion of a person who is struggling with those urges. There’s not always a clear reason and while there can be a way to rationalize suicide, it ignores the fact that at the heart of suicidal thoughts is something primal and quite beyond the thoughts of someone who has never been in that situation.
The Bell Jar manages to both be simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable, rewarding and frustrating. It speaks to the conscious effort that we make as a society to rationalize the actions of the people around us, of the loss of drive and purpose as we grow out of the regimented institutions that raised us, and of the helplessness not only of the person inside The Bell Jar but also the people who love that person.
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