Reader’s Advisory: the Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is one of those famous books everybody supposedly reads in high school/that time in their life. I’ve never read Animal Farm, 1984, or Lord of the Flies, but everybody knows them. Y’know, those sort of books.

All I knew about Sylvia Plath is that she was a poet, wrote this one book, struggled with mental health issues, and supposedly committed suicide by sticking her head in an oven. While this book isn’t strictly an autobiography and is supposed to be about a character named Esther Greenwood and her struggle with depression, men, and the world, it’s essentially the story of Sylvia Plath. Esther wins a scholarship to do some writing in New York, afterwards attempts suicide, and is hospitalized.

It’s not really a complicated plot. I don’t know if I would have cared for this book when I was 17. Sort of like with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I don’t really like reading books in somebody else’s subconscious when they’re just living their life, even if I relate to what they’re living and feeling. I think I enjoyed The Bell Jar because she wants to be great, not some thing for men, and does as she pleases without holding back for them.

That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows of a Fourth of July rocket.

I think I liked it because I had decided I was going to write about this book and so I looked for things that called out to the depressed girl in me, but I’m not sure if I didn’t know how subtle and numbing depression was – which I definitely didn’t know when I was 17 – then I’m not sure I would have gotten it. I’m not sure I would have understood Esther’s feeling of separation from the world, of being under a bell jar (fyi, it’s basically the thing for the rose in Beauty and the Beast), and I’m not sure I would have understood why she couldn’t just continue doing what she had to do to survive this life.

If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat –  on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

When I was 17, I was young and hopeful about the world; I had had two good romantic relationships and only four people in my life had died. Now, I have major depression with some anxiety, I have a very different view of boys now, my 24th birthday just passed and my dad didn’t wish me a happy birthday, and nine people in my life have died. I am bitter and I am hurt by this world and it was nice to read that in Esther Greenwood’s experiences and to think, “Ah, I gotchu girl” as I read her thoughts.

I told him I believed in hell, and that certain people, like me, had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death, since they didn’t believe in life after death, and what each person believed happened to him when he died.

I’d like to say that the Bell Jar isn’t a depressing book and that it’s just a book about depression. It’s not all about being sad and numb; I’ve just picked out the parts that reflect her poor mental health. In itself, it is an interesting view on life in the 1950s and of being institutionalized. I haven’t talked to anybody else who has read the Bell Jar (Yvonne is the only one and she read it years ago), but I am curious how other depressed people feel about this book. Then again, it is a classic, so I feel like people will say it’s great anyway. Let’s just say that if you read it, you could possibly understand a severely depressed person a little better, based on the sample size of me.

“We’ll act as if this were a bad dream” [the nurse said].

A bad dream.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remembered everything.

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them.

But they were part of me. They were my landscape.


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