Book Review: “The Bell Jar” (1963) by Sylvia Plath

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“An Education” (2009) still.

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“Sylvia Plath – interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Annie Hall (1977)

That quote is the perfect illustration of why it can be difficult to say that you love Sylvia Plath, especially for young women; her name and the title of her novel have become synonymous with a whole set of implications neither Plath nor the reader ever asked for.

In her book Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers, Janet Badia dives into the cultural myth of the Plath fan. According to her, it all started in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when women readers were thought to be “arrested in a perpetual state of adolescence” and had to be protected against reading material that was too emotionally provocative. Their feminine emotional investement made these women susceptible to all kinds of dangerous thoughts, so their reading material had to be prescribed and regulated, just to be safe. Women were generally thought to be prone to nervous ailments, and female readers especially were considered melancholic and “dangerously lost.” As a result, having a lot of female fans could endanger an author’s reputation; they were misguided and hysterical, and thus, an undesirable audience.

Plath, for her part, is thought to be popular with young women because they identify with her depression and romanticise it into heroism to the point where some critics refer to Plath as a “suicide icon.” Her very name has become code for a certain kind of obsessive female fan who has ruined Plath’s literary reputation with her own misgivings and misinterpretations – usually of the shrill, irrational kind. Bitches be crazy, am I right? (It’s disturbing that I’ve been able to use that line two reviews in a row.)

Badia writes:

For some critics, Plath’s popularity with women readers represents an obstacle to a serious consideration of her work, a distraction that must be dealt with lest it continue to divert attention away from the brilliance of her poetry. For less admiring critics, Plath’s popularity with women readers is all the evidence that is needed to make a case for the lack of brilliance in her work; after all, these critics imply, if so many women like it, how good can it be, especially given women’s notoriously uncritical reading habits and undiscriminating consumption of such “low” cultural productions as soap operas?

Just think of how people talk about songs/movies/books that are popular with teenage girls – it is generally assumed that this is a sign of bad quality and overemotional, blind romanticisation. Admit it, you had your opinion on Taylor Swift and One Direction ready long before you were exposed to their actual songs.

The image of the Plath groupie has become so universally accepted that even holding The Bell Jar has become a visual code for a certain kind of character. In her book, Badia has picked one telling example from pop culture: Kat Stratford from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You.

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Kat is the quintessential Plath fan: she is young, female, adolescent, loud, sharp, angry, emotional, and very vocal about her feminist views (note that in this Shakespearean adaptation she is the titular shrew who needs to be tamed). Everything we need to know about her is right there in the shot, in the form of her chosen reading material.

No wonder it’s difficult to tell people that The Bell Jar is your favourite book.

This is a terrible shame, because in the end, it is a truly fascinating novel that does not only discuss depression and suicide, but also grapples with gender roles, sexuality, and feeling uncertain about the future. As you may remember, the latter is of particular interest to me and some of the issues I’ve discussed on this website before should still be bouncing around in the back of your mind for this review. You see, Plath’s narrator, Esther, struggles to get a grasp on what her life will look like once her internship is over:

I thought I would spend the summer reading Finnegan’s Wake and writing my thesis.
[...] Then I thought I might put off college for a year and apprentice myself to a pottery maker.
Or work my way to Germany and be a waitress, until I was bilingual.
Then plan after plan started leaping through my head, like a family of scatty rabbits.
I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.

Esther sees roads not taken everywhere she goes and ponders all the possible lives she might live but probably never will. Sometimes these thoughts are nothing more but amusing fantasies, but they can also be terrifying and almost unbearable. She is crushed by the weight of all the decisions she has to make – and the consequences she will have to bear if she makes the wrong choice:

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. [...] 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.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds disturbingly familiar to me, like a nightmare I’ve had all too recently. That is why, when I first opened Google to do the necessary research for this review, I was thrilled to come across an article about why Sylvia Plath’s book speaks to milennials. In this piece, Sarah Galo writes:

Like Esther, I recognize that I am “supposed to be having the time of my life.” If Taylor Swift is to believed, being an early 20-something is supposed to be fun. It is an age to be enjoyed and savored. Since graduating, and being on the precipice of the “real world,” I certainly do not feel carefree. I feel anxious and unsure of myself. [...]

Like Esther, I am discontent with settling, but unsure of where to begin. I find myself mirroring Esther’s list of “inadequacies.” While Plath is writing in the context of the gender-boxing 50s and 60s, I still feel lost, in the 21st century, without ingenious cooking skills or expensive side activities such as horseback riding. I write, I read, I analyze the world around me, a similarly “plain English major.” But the options are before me, and I have my pick; I am twenty-two with a degree and work experience. Or, I should have my pick, but the choice is paralyzing. Or, I should have my pick, but there are thousands like me, and the job market is not promising.

(No really, put this review next to the one of Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. It’s eerie.)

Even if you have never struggled with depression yourself, many of Esther’s insecurities and fears are painfully relatable. She is tossed back and forth between great expectations and no expectations at all, between all these possibilities and the life that has been planned out for her, and crippling anxiety is the result. Even though she is surrounded by people, Esther is completely alone and she cannot find a way out of her own head. We’ve all felt like this at some point in our lives – now imagine having to deal with these feelings for years on end.

In conclusion: I am a college girl and I think The Bell Jar is a damn fine book.

Woody Allen can go fuck himself.

 

Note: A lot of people love comparing The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar and I can definitely see why (two depressed young narrators with a distinctive voice wandering through New York City), but for me, these two books are bound together for another reason. When I was a teenager, I tried reading both Catcher and Bell Jar in an attempt to get to know “the classics” and ended up hating both of them. I worked my way through Salinger’s novel, but put away Plath’s book after only a couple of pages because I just couldn’t deal with another story where nothing happened – or so I thought. I reread and fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye a couple of years ago, but kept postponing The Bell Jar because at this point, the reader stereotype I discussed earlier had wriggled its way into my head and I didn’t want to be an angry young woman who glorifies depression and death. Yes. Well. See above.

Note Number Two: I like to post quotes from the book I’m currently reading on Tumblr and while I was reading The Bell Jar, I got a message from a concerned follower who wanted to check up on me since “Plath is the literary equivalent of blasting eighties Depeche Mode and feeling grim about the universe.”

Note Number Three: Yes, this review got slightly out of control. I’m not even sorry.


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4 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Bell Jar” (1963) by Sylvia Plath

  • August 9, 2015 at 4:24 pm
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    I am also shamelessly going to steal this Leslie Jamison quote from Ruby’s Goodreads review:

    I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the hurting woman is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.

    I felt particularly wounded by the brilliant and powerful female poet who visibly flinched during a writing workshop at Harvard when I started reciting Sylvia Plath. She’d asked us each to memorize a poem and I’d chosen “Ariel,” which felt like its own thirteenth line, black sweet blood mouthfuls, fierce and surprising and hurting and free.

    “Please,” this brilliant and powerful woman said, as if herself in pain. “I’m just so tired of Sylvia Plath.”

    I had this terrible feeling that every woman who knew anything about anything was tired of Sylvia Plath, tired of her blood and bees and the level of narcissistic self-pity required to compare her father to Hitler – but I’d been left behind. I hadn’t gotten the highbrow girl-memo: Don’t Read the Girls Who Cried Pain.

    - Leslie Jamison in The Empathy Exams.

    Reply
  • August 8, 2017 at 12:23 pm
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    I read your essay because finished <>
    You wrote a pretty damn good study about the book. Im really appreciate it.

    Anton

    Reply

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