BOOKS: Sylvia Plath – ‘The Bell Jar’

The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

*Notice* First post for my new venture: A BLOG. I hear that’s how everyone gets jobs and shit done these days. Other recent ventures include starting a journal (a very sad, handwritten book) and challenging myself to read 20 whole books this year, recorded on Goodreads… but already cheated at that by listing a short story and a play I had to read for uni which each took me under an hour to finish.

Besides those, The Bell Jar was the second actual novel-length book I’ve read so far in 2015 – the first being Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, which I may write about after this one. I feel I should be able to write a decent blog post on A History after I wrote an exam essay on it as part of my degree, but equally feel vastly unqualified for such a task as there’s so many reallllly intelligent analyses of it already on the internet which I don’t think I can touch at this stage in my… ‘career’.

To begin: Bell Jar wasn’t all that I expected. By that, I mean it wasn’t half as dark. For my first year’s university exams I studied Plath’s Collected Poems which set a precedent for my presumptions of her novel. I can’t decide whether I’m more relieved by the sedate content in comparison, or disappointed. There definitely is a certain disappointment, but at the same time I was pleasantly surprised throughout reading it not to be dogged with nightmares about severed thumbs, evil tulips and spurned zombie daughters.

I think what I liked most about this novel is the analogy of being depressed likened to being shut in a bell jar. Plath’s depiction of relief from depression, as if the bell jar is lifted allowing in fresh air and freedom, resonates in many a shared experience; perhaps a major factor in the great success of the novel. Likening depression to feeling trapped inside a glass confine is clever, relatable and sad. The sufferer – Esther Greenwood, in this case, as Plath’s protagonist – sees their distorted world through clear curved glass but is prevented from engaging. Confinement ould be said to be a central theme of the story; Esther is confined to her expectations of working life and college, her family home over summer as her depression takes hold, her worries about her career path, and then her illness which results in confinement to a mental institution.

During my time studying Plath’s poetry at uni, we were taught not to presume Plath’s work is autobiographical. We had to view each poem as a representation of thoughts and feelings or something, and not necessarily her own. Thinking about this now, I reject it. Any reading around the life and times of Sylvia Plath points to her work being highly autobiographical – the bees? The German? The hospitals!!! As a result of recklessly abandoning my lovely lecturer’s well-meaning and expert advice, I read this book as a kind of fictitious version of what is essentially a true story. Or rather, Plath’s ideal of her own life’s story. Having half-attempted to narrate my own life story before has highlighted a tendency to rose-tint one’s own experiences. While I can’t say this novel is ‘rose-tinted’, due to some pretty macabre instances (though how would I know – I’m not Plath. And I think that’s what my lecturer was getting at all along but that’s a whole new tangent), it’s fairly safe to assume that a large portion of the content of this story is things which did happen to Plath, reworked for fiction. I think. Maybe. Nobody knows but Plath, and none of it is up for confirmation any time soon.

I was eager to start this book after hearing people say it changed their life, but I should have known that I was setting myself up for a let down there after I read The Beach under the same pretences. But I did love The Beach! It just didn’t radically change my outlook or make me a better person like I had hoped (Can books do such a thing? A discussion for another day). And neither did this. I never thought I’d be in a position where I enjoyed poetry over a novel, but this case has done just that, and I’m quite glad by it. I liked some poetry! It’s a Christmas miracle! Despite not enjoying it as much as I’d hoped, it’s an easy and pleasant read – even inoffensive, which is, on reflection, the main reason it let me down. I’d gone in prepared to wrestle a rottweiler and got sort of rebuffed a nonchalant labrador.


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