Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I'm a reader. Always have been. As a kid I always had a book in hand. It was a way for me to go on an adventure. And I still feel that way. There have been periods in my life where I haven't been able to read as much as I would have liked, when my babies were tiny, etc. But now I don't have any excuse.

When our girls were 4 and 1 my New Year's Resolution was to read more books. More adult books because I was reading plenty of children's books. I'm happy to report that is one resolution I've been able to achieve success with. And still am. I'm also a member of a book club which keeps me motivated but that's another story for another time.

My first read of 2008 was The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. I'd never heard of the book or the author until I started reading Pioneer Woman's blog. I liked Pioneer Woman's blog and her side bar says she channels Sylvia Plath so I figured if PW is this cool, Sylvia Plath must be too. Boy did I need to get an education. About Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia was a poet and novelist. She had her first poem published at the age of 8 in a local newspaper. Her father was a zoologist at Boston University who died shortly after her 8th birthday from diabetes which he incorrectly self-diagnosed.

Sylvia attended Smith College and also Cambridge University. During her 3rd year at Smith she received a scholarship for Guest Editor of Mademoiselle. She married English poet Ted Hughes and died in London at the early age of 30.

It is said that The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical work. The story follows Esther Greenwood during her summer internship with a New York fashion magazine. Esther's friend Doreen is there to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way, some of which the girl should have said no to. And then there's Betsy from Kansas who Doreen refers to as "Pollyanna Cowgirl." Esther is exhillerated by this New York lifestyle but also scared and confused. Esther would have been better off if she would have been able to make her own decisions but the girl's a follower. Which leads her to situations that she doesn't know how to handle.

Upon the completion of her internship Esther returns home. Depressed, she sets her hopes on attending a writing course. When that doesn't pan out, she decides to write a novel. But that never materializes. Her mother encourages her to take a stenography class because that is a skill that would last her a lifetime. Esther wants nothing to do with that as she's not interested in the traditional roles available for women.

Not able to sleep for days, insomnia ensues. Her mother forces her to see a psychiatrist who immediately diagnoses her with a mental illness and proceeds to administer electroshock therapy incorrectly. Esther feels as if she's trapped under a bell jar and there's no air. After several failed suicidal attempts, Esther enters her new home; a mental hospital. Several life altering events during her stay lead to her regaining her sanity. The book closes with her interview which will decide if she's able to leave the mental hospital or not.

If you're looking for an upbeat or light-hearted read, keep looking. As much as it's possible to enjoy a depressing, gray book, I did. I chose this book because I'd heard so much about the author and I wanted to cure my curiosity. My personal opinion is that Esther did not need to be in a mental ward but that her mother didn't know how to handle the situation. I saw Esther having sane moments but being trapped because others had told her she was crazy. Her personality was to be a follower, and therefore she didn't know to voice her own thoughts in a way that others would hear her desires.

I will have to say that when I think of Esther Greenwood feeling like she's trapped in a bell jar, the visual image I have is from the 1940's, which would have been during the lifetime of both Esther and Sylvia, when Pheasant Under Glass was available in upscale restaurants.

I'm curious if PW has read this. And, I'd like to know just what characteristics of Sylvia Plath she's channeling.

1 comment:

kimj said...

This was a good read! And you wrote a great summary! It makes you wonder if Sylvia had lived in the present generation, would she have met the same, early end to her life? I'd like to think that modern advances in mental health diseases would have kept her around longer so that we could enjoy more of her writing talents.