On Reading The Bell Jar for the First Time

the bell jar anniversaryFor my whole (sentient) life, I have been avoiding Sylvia Plath. I didn’t have any reason to avoid her. I liked the poems of her husband quite a bit (though, yes, I know. He was kind of an a-hole.) In fact, I liked that whole period of literature. But for some reason I could never get myself to read her.

I think it was the whole suicide thing. So dramatic. So sensationalist. In my head, I was expecting the Bell Jar to read like an Ode to Romantic Suicide, sort of in the style of Elizabeth’s Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept: excessive on the lyrical, scarce on the plot. I was expecting some soppy, po-mo work that probably had some literary merit for those who were interested in that sort of thing, but that I wasn’t going to read if I didn’t have to.

Also, and I hate to admit this because it is indicative of how deeply I internalized the patriarchy of the literary canon, I think I dismissed her because she was the wife of a famous poet. Although I never said it aloud (in fact, I don’t ever remember having a conversation about Plath, except to say I never read her) I am pretty sure dirty thoughts like “she’s only famous because of Ted Hughes” or, “her book is a classic only because she committed suicide.”

Ah, the ugliness of ignorance.

What finally made me pick it up for the first time (and no, it was not the depressing weather we are having, though it did add to the mood) was a young adult book by Meg Wolitzer called Belzhar (see what she did there? I didn’t until I had the two books side by side. I am so slow sometimes.) I finished the first chapter of Belzhar and realised that the book would be centered around a reading of The Bell Jar. That is when I hit the pause button and got myself a copy. I couldn’t read the Wolitzer book without having full knowledge of the text it was springing off from. That seemed like…shoddy reading.

So I spent the weekend with Sylvia. And oh my god, was I ever wrong. In fact, reading The Bell Jar was like unpeeling the onion of my gross, ignorant assumptions. Let us start the beginning, shall we?

  1. Even reading the back cover, I discovered I didn’t even know what the book was about. Yes, depression and suicide are major themes. But there is a whole plot. Esther Greenwood goes places! Wants things!
  1. Why didn’t anybody tell me that Esther Greenwood was like a female, feminist Holden Caulfield? That’s all it would have taken for me to pick up the book in a heart beat? Why? They are written at about the same time (okay, ten-ish years difference). But Esther is a girl who sees through the bullshit and wants more. She wants meaning. And Beauty. And wants to write about it.
  1. Before I thought of Holden, Plath’s book made me think of Camus’ The Stranger. It felt like they were describing the same sort of existential angst, albeit from two very different perspectives.
  1. There was also some funny parts, which surprised me. For instance, when she is New York on her fancy internship at a woman’s magazine, all the girls get poisoned by a lunch put on by Ladies’ Day. Ha.
  1. If you ignore the real-life story of Plath and her own suicide a few weeks after the publication of the Bell Jar, it actually ends on a hopeful note. In many ways it is a classic coming of age story. Esther Greenwood is at a crossroads in her life. She has excelled at school her own life, gotten a prestigious scholarship to an ivy league college, won this fabulous prize as an intern in New York City. She is poised to fly away on the wings of her own ambitions when she is struck with an existential vertigo. What does it all mean? What the hell is she doing? All of a sudden, she can’t move. She is as inert as liquid in a bell jar. She is stuck.

The English teachers at our school have paired this with Catcher in the Rye and Hamlet, which I think is brilliant. Holden, Hamlet and Esther should really get together and go bowling.

I have now taken up Wolitzer’s Belzhar in earnest and am really enjoying it. But more on that later…

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