Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

Summary: A semi-autobiographical novel. Plath's narrator, Esther Greenwood, recounts her time on scholarship at a fashion magazine during college and subsequent suicide attempt and institutionalization upon her return home for the remainder of the summer.

Musings: This book came to mind recently with the news of the suicide of Plath's son. I'd heard of The Bell Jar before, most likely in some Women's Studies class, but I had only vague notions of who Plath was and what her only novel was about.

What struck me first (which was also noted in the forward), was how contemporary the book sounded. From the beginning, Esther sounds like any other slightly jaded/slightly trying to be "cool" college student who isn't as sure of herself as she appears. I instantly felt a personal connection. Although I was highly successful in high school and college, I dealt with bouts of mild depression in which all my successes seemed meaningless. I struggled to fit in with other people when I frequently cared little about putting in the necessary effort for them to like me. Esther finds herself falling farther away from the other girls at the magazine without knowing why, and I felt her experiences were undeniably real and relatable.

The trueness of the first part of the account makes the second half all the more scary as Esther quickly loses hope, becomes preoccupied with suicide, and nearly succeeds in killing herself. Although her sickness has clear signs of mental illness, in many ways she also felt like a normal young woman, trying to figure out her role in the world.

The novels ends with Esther making a (presumably) successful bid to leave the asylum and resume classes and college. Yet I felt all along that Esther had not been "cured." She had just learned to hide her abnormal feelings and function better in society. Of course, Plath herself succeeded in committing suicide only weeks after the publication of the novel, so perhaps I was biased from the beginning. Nevertheless, the book and my feelings on the ending led me to consider how much mental illness is truly an illness--meaning it can be cured--and how much it is a part of one's ingrained psyche. Although I no longer attend therapy (it never did me any good), I don't know that I'm any different from my "depressed" period in college. I'm still very successful, with a successful job and marriage, but am I any different? My husband's struggled with depression more than I, and I frequently have the same wonderings about him. He's gotten better and he's gotten worse, but has he changed as a person? Is the difference between a person who lives a full life and a person who gives up early all that great?

Suicide has been loosely on my mind recently with this book, studying Romeo and Juliet with my 9th graders, and reading about the author David Foster Wallace. Plath/Esther, Romeo, Juliet, and Wallace all strike me as people who lived life passionately with the desire for perfection, and in doing so, they only realized the futility of reaching that utopia in the actual world. We're frequently raised with the idea that true happiness is obtainable, but I think the perfect happy life is a false idealization that few people reach and many people go crazy attempting to reach.

Plath is discussed within the Women's Studies circle for its feminist themes, particularly around the sexual expectations and gender roles of men and women. Although written decades ago, The Bell Jar accurately depicts the tension women even today feel between finding the relationship they want and the relationship they are expected to have and balancing a career with the need/desire/expectation to have children.

I enjoyed The Bell Jar, especially with its honest first person narrator. I typically hate books which are too innerly focused, but I felt intimately drawn into Esther's crumbling world.

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