Revisiting The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
It’s getting on for 40 years since I first read the work of Sylvia Plath (which is a fairly alarming acknowledgement!); back in the world of 1970s feminism, she was the go-to author for discussion of the female condition and the changes taking place in women’s lives in the relatively recent past. But it’s a long time since I read any of her fiction; I seem to be reading more books about her than by her recently, and it’s been on my mind that it was time to pick up “The Bell Jar” again, to find out what I made of it at such a distance from my first experience of the book. And so the time was right for a re-read of Plath in my trusty old Faber paperback.
“The Bell Jar” is Plath’s only published novel, and it’s widely regarded as autobiographical, telling the story of Esther Greenwood, a young American girl spending a summer in New York on a placement with a magazine. Coming from a New England town, Esther is struggling to cope with the city; she’s naive in many ways, and doesn’t really fit in with the ‘fast’ girls, though she’s too worldly for the small-town girls. Isolated from both groups, she finds herself slipping behind, failing to meet deadlines and beginning to lose the impetus to make a success of the opportunity she’s been given.
Back in her home town for the summer, Esther starts to spiral into depression when she isn’t accepted onto a writing course. Having sailed through her schooling up to this point, failure is not something she’s used to dealing with. As the hot summer plods on, Esther does to, trying to find some kind of direction and focus. Her mental state deteriorates to the point where she can’t sleep and stops washing, and so begins the record of her treatment at the hands of a series of medics of differing talents and sympathies.
The first doctor is a disaster, administering shock treatment incorrectly which leads to a suicide attempt. Eventually, through the help of a benefactress, she is placed in a more sympathetic environment, with a doctor who is more understanding and Esther begins to work through her illness. In the clinic she meets a school friend, Joan, who’s also made a suicide attempt; the meeting will be pivotal as one girl will make her way back to the world and one girl will not.
In many ways, I find it hard to talk about “The Bell Jar”; it’s such a remarkable novel, powerfully written and very affecting. Plath builds a convincing picture of Esther Greenwood, the small-town overachiever who finds herself out of her depth and sinking in the Big Apple. She charts the ups and downs of her emotions, her development as a young woman and her struggle to find a role for herself. Running through all this is the dilemma in which many women found themselves during the 1950s – their road through life was no longer obvious, and they were struggling to choose between the traditional role of wife and mother, or the longing for a wider path.
This is particularly exemplified by Esther’s relationship with her high-school boyfriend Buddy Willard, who reappears throughout the book. Initially Esther is bowled over by the fact he should want to go out with her; but as she develops, she becomes more clear-eyed about his faults, about the restrictions there would be if she married him, and she comes back to the same old issue for women – career or family. She articulates it in quite brilliant imagery, which Middle Child mentioned to me when I said I was re-reading “The Bell Jar”:
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.
It’s an issue that’s relevant to women today, despite all the so-called advances; we still often have to make the choice between children and career in a way men never do, and we’re still encountering everyday sexism in the workplace. And it may well be that it’s the strain of being drawn in so many different directions with so many conflicts that exacerbates Esther’s mental decline.
The book also stands, rightly or wrongly, as a strong piece of autobiography from Plath. Despite the fact it’s fiction, Esther Greenwood’s life is seen as shorthand for Plath’s, as it’s based on many events in her own life. It’s powerful and moving watching EG/SP go through these experiences, fighting against her emotional and mental hardships and coming out at the end – well, cured is not the right word, as I still had a sense that she was coping, maybe even playing the game, but remaining at odds with the world.
I’m happy to say I loved revisiting “The Bell Jar” – I was transported back to my first read of it all those years ago, and my reactions were just the same (which means either I haven’t grown up much or it’s a book that really shouldn’t be classed as for Young Adults as I’ve bizarrely enough seen it done). This is a brilliant book which speaks of women’s struggles whatever their age – and I just wish that Plath’s other rumoured novel had survived the destruction process…