Monday, February 1, 2010

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I’d forgotten just how twitchy this book makes me. The first time I read it, unwisely I think now, was my freshman year in high school. Who lets a fifteen year old girl read this? Granted I probably didn’t understand as much of it then as I do now but still. I don’t think I should have read this book at fifteen. Dregs up too many of my own psychological quirks. As I read through it this time, I got worried with how well I understood the emotions Plath describes.

The Plot: Esther Greenwood is a nineteen year old girl who has recently won a contest. The prize is a month in New York getting some on the job experience at a fashion magazine. Esther is a straight-A English major but one who doesn’t know what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She’s faced with so many choices but can’t seem to summon enough effort to get interested in anything. This culminates in a severe time of depression when she returns home to Boston after her stay in New York. She can’t sleep, can’t read, and can’t write so she goes to see a psychiatrist whose only attempt at help is to suggest shock treatments, which was still a popular form of therapy in the ‘50s when the book is set. There follows the tale of her life in and out of asylums.

The Characters: Esther is really the only character with any real depth. She seems very real to me, which I attribute to her close relation to Silvia Plath. One writes best what one knows; and confusion and suicide attempts are something Plath was intimately familiar with. Due to her experiences with the events in the novel she is able to add so much more depth than if a completely mentally healthy person had attempted the same. Esther’s character is not very invested in any one else, almost as if they aren’t wholly real to her. The result is that none of the other characters seem as real to the reader as Esther does.

Storytelling: This novel is told wonderfully! It’s in first person through Esther Greenwood eyes. Plath excels at defining the indefinable. She takes the hurricane of Esther’s thoughts and feelings and if not calms them at least makes them understandable.

I love how the novel every now and then will break off and focus on the most random event. For instance, the Ladies’ Day banquet, where Esther sits and wonders if she’ll be able to make sure the caviar bowl closest to her stays untouched by anyone but her. The random tangents she goes off on and the offbeat descriptions that seem to fit perfectly captivate me. “On every side of me the red and blue and white jacketed skiers tore away down the blinding slope like fugitive bits of an American flag.”

Theme: Esther’s an expert at avoiding things that make her uncomfortable. One of her tangents is the tale of how she managed to get out of learning chemistry. When she’s faced with a limitless future she gets, understandably, very uncomfortable. The future though is a hard thing to avoid. She’s unable to sidestep the looming unpleasantness which is a major factor in her downward spiral. The book ends with her walking into a room of her own volition for an interview to see if she’s ready to leave the asylum she’s been living in and face the real world once again. I think near the end of the book she’s finally learned that there are some things that you just can’t run from.

Overall: This book is a literary piece of art! The last few books I’ve read seemed more for entertainment than for getting a message across. Though I don’t think Plath was necessarily after getting a message across either. I wonder what she got out of writing it. When I write, I see things clearer, I’m more rational, and I walk away feeling better than I had. But writing about her feelings and what she went through obviously didn’t help her in the end. Esther escaped the book relatively unscathed but sadly Plath didn’t and successfully committed suicide a month after the novels first publication. I don’t know if I could go so far as to assume what she was going for in writing The Bell Jar, I’m just glad she did.

I would GREATLY RECOMMEND this book!!

1 comment:

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