My friend, Loretta, and I keep talking about how we should resurrect the weekly book discussions we’d begun in Pune. It’s not quite easy though with her being in Australia, me in India, the major time difference between us, and the fact that we both have so much to do anyway. The book we’d chosen to discuss for our last meeting (which never happened, sadly) was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I managed to complete this book in one sitting on a Friday when I was feeling too blah to care about my other responsibilities. I spent most of that day lying on the couch, lost in Sylvia Plath’s shockingly hilarious book.
I don’t know why I’d waited so long to read this book. I’d known it was a semi-autobiographical account of Plath’s struggle with mental illness and clinical depression – and that had fascinated me, as a student of Clinical Psychology. I guess I kept putting it off because I expected it to be gloomy and depressing, like most other books based on psychopathology. However, The Bell Jar turned out to be a surprise. It was witty, insightful and intriguing. I hadn’t expected it to be so funny. It’s become one of those books I can’t help flipping through every so often, rereading my favourite passages.
Apart from describing the experience of being clinically depressed and schizophrenic (that’s what most researchers claim her symptoms indicate), this book is also revealing to the mind of Esther Greenwood, a 21-year old girl in the 1950s.
In brief, the story begins with Esther Greenwood as an intern in New York. The magazine Esther is interning for that summer is famous and comes with many perks. It’s striking that she isn’t taken up with the sudden glamour. In fact, on her last night in New York, Esther flings out her new stylish clothes one by one out the window and watches them float away. Her friends from the magazine, her boss, the boy who imagines himself engaged to her, and her longing to be a writer and to live an exciting life herself, are all sketched out in the most unpretentious way that it reverses the solemn subject of the story to amusement. Society’s expectations and Esther’s own conflicting views suggest a tangential independent streak that was probably quite foreign to the larger population of the time (I hesitate to use the word ‘feminist’ because it seems to have so many confusing connotations). For one, she voices her confusion of women having to remain pure and innocent, while men were allowed to follow a double standard. And when her mother tries convincing her to be a typist, she writes that she’d rather write her “own thrilling letters” instead of someone else’s.
Of course, somebody had seduced Buddy, Buddy hadn’t started it and it wasn’t really his fault. It was this waitress at the hotel he worked at as a busboy the last summer at Cape Cod. Buddy had noticed her staring at him queerly and shoving her breasts up against him in the confusion of the kitchen, so finally one day he asked her what the trouble was and she looked him straight in the eye and said, “I want you.”
“Served up with parsley?” Buddy had laughed innocently.
“No,” she had said. “Some night.”
And that’s how Buddy had lost his pureness and virginity. (pg. 146)
It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way, Buddy Willard had? I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.
Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a redblooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well. (pg. 166)
In some ways this is a coming of age story, as many have pointed out. However, the bell jar that closes down on Esther’s life stifles dreams and hopes so that she’s wary and content with surviving. This book is fearless and modern in that Esther’s passage to adulthood is marked by rejecting the accustomed norm of womanhood i.e., marriage and children. At 22, she’s already been through enough to have a clear assessment of mental illness and an appreciation for the strength that helped her through it. This helps strengthen her existing views of societal norms, interestingly.
It was fascinating to read Esther’s thoughts, her slide into uncertainty, the gloom about meaninglessness in life and achievement, her attempt to commit suicide, and the journey to recovery. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Esther’s courage in both overcoming her illness and in daring to question societal norms at a time when it was unthinkable. Eventually, it’s her courage and ability to form an independent opinion based on her own experiences that mark the entrance into adulthood.
Doctor Nolan had said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell. My mother’s face floated to mind, a pale, reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.
“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.”
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. (pg. 448)
I liked The Bell Jar for so many reasons, the most important being that it was exceptionally well written. There are quite a few books and movies about clinical depression but very few manage to describe the battle against hopelessness without being either detached or uncomfortably morbid. I don’t know how to describe this book without sounding morbid myself but, this book was laugh-out-loud funny as well as thought provoking. Read it and you will see 🙂