Late to the Party: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar
Depression literature for depressed times
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Note: Late to the Party is a new Electric Literature series where we ask writers to read an author that, for some reason, they’ve never read. You can read previous entries here.
Sylvia Plath is often evoked as a symbol of tragedy, depression, and a life cut short. People wonder what Plath could have accomplished had she lived past the age of thirty, for she was an ambitious and, so I’ve been told, an extremely talented writer. I blame my inability to weigh in on her writing myself as a symptom of a greater problem of mine: poetry is severely underrepresented in my reading history, and Plath is foremost a poet.
But I’ve always felt particularly embarrassed about never having read Plath— a glaring hole in my education, I presume, since her only published novel, The Bell Jar, has been cited by various publications as a seminal feminist text. It’s also been referred to as a version of The Catcher in the Rye “for girls,” which seems a bit dismissive to me, in part because The Bell Jar is a novel that even my husband, who ingests books at a much slower clip than I, has read and loved. Besides, describing anything as like a famous book by a man but “for girls” implies that women can’t fully appreciate a coming-of-age novel unless the protagonist and the author are female (and also perhaps suggests that a man would not appreciate a coming-of-age book unless he can identify completely with the lead).
It’s also been referred to as a version of The Catcher in the Rye “for girls,” which seems a bit dismissive to me.
I thought The Bell Jar might be a good place for me to start with Plath’s body of work — I’ve read a ton more novels than I’ve read poetry, and I’ve even read my fair share of J.D. Salinger, so I feel more confident forming an opinion on this work than on her poetry.
I certainly come to The Bell Jar with a lot of associations. Most of all, I can’t shake Hollywood’s infatuation with the book as not just a symbol of depression but perhaps especially the female high school teenager variety of depression. The presence of The Bell Jar in certain films seems to be shorthand for lending credibility and depth to a young woman’s inner turmoil (but of course an intelligent teenage woman would be associated with deep depression — any woman who is aware of her surroundings in the typical American high school can find plenty of things to get her down).
I think of Julia Stiles’ serious and sarcastic character Kat reading The Bell Jar in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, as she contemplates college and infuriating but charming Heath Ledger. In the previous decade, the movie Heathers placed the Cliffs Notes for The Bell Jar at the site of Heather Chandler’s death, which was then deemed a suicide, giving Heather a gravitas she had not earned in life. And now Kirsten Dunst is set to make her directorial debut with an adaptation of The Bell Jar starring Dakota Fanning (who, by the way, apparently grew up and turned twenty-three while I was busy blinking or something).
Sylvia Plath did kill herself, after several more pedestrian attempts with pills and whatnot, by placing her head in an oven and turning on the gas, leaving literary nerds possessing a dark sense of humor with a simple Halloween costume idea: fashion a cardboard box into an oven, and place it over your head (I know I’m not the only one who has witnessed this). If Plath’s method of successful suicide hadn’t been so unusual, perhaps her mental state wouldn’t overshadow the discussion of her writing so much?
If Plath’s method of successful suicide hadn’t been so unusual, perhaps her mental state wouldn’t overshadow the discussion of her writing so much?
Who knows, and anyway it doesn’t matter — I want to read Plath’s writing to have an opinion of her that isn’t strictly about her biography, because, it seems, the world will always be rehashing the details of her life (new letters by Plath are scheduled to be published this Fall, and there is mention of some of these letters referencing abuse she endured at the hands of her famous poet husband Ted Hughes).
All this being said, I do admit part of my interest in Plath’s writing is due to my knowledge of certain aspects of her life story. As someone who has been suffering recently with some postpartum depression myself, I’m fascinated by the fact that Plath made sure to protectively block the cracks around the bedroom doors of her sleeping infant and toddler before turning on the gas in the oven. I mean, is this not indicative of a thorough mind? Seriously, though, even when a woman is choosing to leave this world, if she is a mother, is she always compelled to think of the needs of her children first? In addition to her depression, I sympathize with the pulls both of family and of creative ambition that Plath must have struggled through.
Perhaps being in a difficult stage of my life is the worst time to read a novel by a depressed writer who drew on the details of her own experiences for the book’s plot, or perhaps it is the best time. Perhaps reading The Bell Jar would do to me what other books I love have done: make me feel less alone.
I’ve been known to find humor in books concerning suicide before, so maybe it says more about me than about Plath that I found this book to be funny. But I don’t think I’m the only one who has laughed at parts of The Bell Jar. In fact, in her introduction to my Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, Frances McCullough calls The Bell Jar “a very funny book” because of Plath’s “amazing humor.” She also cites an informal focus group of twenty-something women, all of whom loved the book, and many of whom found it “surprisingly undepressing.”
I think the reason The Bell Jar reads as funny and undepressing, despite the fact that it follows protagonist Esther Greenwood through assorted attempts to end her life and shock treatments in an asylum, is that the writing is so sharp and smart. Esther is besieged by societal expectations and pressures, from conventions of marriage and motherhood to attempted date rape, but she never truly succumbs to these pressures or thinks of herself as “less than” because she is a woman — she remains questioning of everything. Esther is not a woman who simply falls into line, which is seemingly part of the reason she is dubbed crazy and in need of treatment.
I can see why The Bell Jar is a favorite of disaffected teen girls struggling with entry into adulthood, though I still enjoyed the book as a thirty-nine-year-old. Esther is ambitious, and these ambitions are in contrast to the college girls who surround her, almost all of whom seem to be working on their MRS degrees above all. Esther considers, “I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” Now, I don’t think that marriage and parenthood hold as many restrictions for women now as they did in Sylvia Plath’s time, but it is disturbing that this statement of Esther’s can still resonate as much as it does in 2017, as The Bell Jar was first published over fifty years ago, in 1963.
There are moments when the fact that the book was written over fifty years ago become apparent in unfortunate ways, such as Plath’s use of phrases like “yellow as a Chinaman” and “dusky as a bleached-blonde Negress.” These moments did more to take me out of the narrative than dated plot details like weekend visits from Yale boys or New York society luncheons where girls are treated like debutantes (or maybe such things still happen in New York and I’m just not aware of them).
To me, she comes across as a person who is full of strength, and society’s assessment of her as a crazy person reads as the gaslighting that drives her mad.
Mostly, I was drawn to Esther’s unique responses to traumatic events. To me, she comes across as a person who is full of strength, and society’s assessment of her as a crazy person reads as the gaslighting that drives her mad. One example: she recognizes her would-be rapist as a “woman-hater” soon after meeting him for a date, and she wears his bloody fingerprints from their fight on her cheek into the next day, on her train ride from a month-long fellowship in New York City to her mother in the suburbs. “I didn’t really see why people should look at me,” reasoned Esther. “Plenty of people looked queerer than I did.” It’s a complicated action, in that it can be interpreted as both defiant and as the sign of someone who is too exhausted to care (“It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in those last days”).
My takeaway is that the circumstances of Esther Greenwood’s life drove her to madness, but her underlying depression would have been present regardless. As someone who is familiar with depression, I found the portrayal of Esther to be spot on. Her own silence depresses her. A hot bath, one that is hot enough to scald her, one she has to dip her body into very slowly, is often the only thing that can make her feel better. “I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath,” writes Plath. And I think, same here. In a hot bath, you are alone, and the demands of the world aren’t upon you. You can, in effect, melt away.
I suppose the realities of Sylvia Plath’s own life do bear weight on her legacy in legitimate ways, in that they inform her writing and help to give us an honest portrayal of depression. I find it interesting that Plath chose to write a somewhat autobiographical novel instead of a memoir (though it’s possible this choice was largely about an ambition to write novels). Writing a story that is loosely her own, using a fictional character as a stand in for herself, is of a part with the disassociation that a depressed person can feel. But perhaps it is time we stop romanticizing depression and suicide, both Plath’s and others’, and instead accept depression as something that many people, and certainly not just writers, suffer through. Depression, like any part of a writer’s personality, can affect the output of her work, leading to a body of literature that is as diverse as the people who are writing it.
There is no doubt to me that The Bell Jar is a feminist text. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a new mother myself I responded most strongly to the feminist takes on motherhood. In one notable scene, Esther witnesses childbirth with her boyfriend, Buddy Willard, who is studying to become a doctor. As Esther watches the baby being born and taken away from its exhausted mother by a team of nurses, Buddy explains that the woman giving birth is given a drug so that she won’t remember the process. “I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent,” says Esther. “Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.”
The disassembly of the patriarchy is a painfully slow process.
Why must books like The Bell Jar (and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985) still feel so timely decades after they are written? The disassembly of the patriarchy is a painfully slow process. I believe that the time in your life in which you read a book will affect your take on the book, and I can certainly say that I read The Bell Jar very aware of the current Trumpian political climate. Parts of the book read like a rallying cry for women to take charge, and in this way I found The Bell Jar to be quite empowering (and I suppose, yes, this is evidence of my response to this novel being informed by the fact that I am a female reader).
In response to an older woman’s explanation of marriage as an institution that allows men to have a place from which to launch their lives, Esther responds, “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
I’m sure that a woman in her twenties, or a man, or anyone who doesn’t match my exact demographic, would find different things that speak to them in The Bell Jar. Some might react to Plath’s descriptions of sex, others might respond to Esther’s difficult relationship with her mother, still others might key in on Esther’s interactions with women her own age. But this is the sign of a great novel, I think — one that truly bears the stamp of its author, yet means something different to every reader.