Why does this book speak to me so? Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The book begins so light, so funny, a young girl in New York living any girl’s dream. She wants to see it all, she wants to experience everything. Plath perfectly captures what it’s like to see the world in that stage of our lives, full of energy and hope and excitement for the future, but also unsure in a way. Brave and scared at once. Right on that line between innocence and loss of innocence: “This dress was cut so queerly I couldn’t wear any sort of bra under it, but that didn’t matter much as I was skinny as a boy and barely rippled, and I liked feeling almost naked on the hot summer nights.” (p. 8).
And how can you not love the girl who says: “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”? (p. 21).
Or who feels about physics just about exactly as I do: “The day I went into physics class it was death.” (p. 36). A foreign man with an accent so strong she can barely understand him starts writing formulas on the board and spouting out theorems “and [her] mind went dead.” (Id.). My thoughts exactly, Sylvia. Give me literature or give me death! Numbers and formulas are best left to those with minds very different from my own.
As when she describes her English courses, and states “I’d been so free I’d spent most of my time on Dylan Thomas.” (p. 132). Lucky girl and an excellent choice.
You almost can’t see the second half of the book coming from the first half, and I think that’s true of actual mental illness as well. Sometimes, one day everything is fine, and the next day it is very much not.
The bell jar analogy is very compelling and powerful. I think she felt suffocated, claustrophobic, and on display, all at once.
This spoke to me: “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.” (p. 130). I remember feeling very much this way at that age. And what’s all this “that age” talk? I feel that way right now. And it’s showing no signs of stopping.
She describes a sort of fascination with “madness,” in art: “The only reason I remembered this play was because it had a mad person in it, and everything I had ever read about mad people stuck in my mind, while everything else flew out.” (p. 163). Yes! I do the same thing. What does this say of me?
In reality, many of the main character’s thoughts, in both stages of the book, reminded me very much of myself. Oh no! What does this mean? No, I’m not really worried. If being fond of authors who choose to end their lives in this way is a problem, then I had a problem long, long ago (consider my fondness for Hemingway, Woolf, and Toole, to say nothing for my near obsession with David Foster Wallace).
Like reading Wallace, there is something eerie (and yet also, I don’t know, dare I say beautiful), in going back now, knowing what we know now, and hearing her talk about suicide. How would she do it? She (Esther, the character) contemplates leaping from a tall building, wandering out into the ocean, shooting, pills, razor blades. Her friend chooses hanging. What must your life and mind be like that going around contemplating these things seems not just normal, but almost pleasant?
She offers profound insight when she talks about how she should be thankful to her benefactor, Mrs. Guinea, for saving her from the state hospital, and eventually helping her get back into school, but that even if Mrs. Guinea had given her a round-the-world cruise ticket to Europe (the ultimate gift for someone with Esther’s energy and desire to see it all), it wouldn’t have made a difference because her “bell jar” would come with her. (See p. 195). I know this is true. Depression/mental illness isn’t something you can leave at home.
I loved the book. Found it very moving. Sad, but not disturbing. Thought-provoking. I think there are a lot of fine lines at play. It’s a fine line between sensitive and too emotional. Between artistically creative and “mad.” That many of the thoughts and feelings expressed in the book rang familiar to me does not bother me. Many people I know wander similar internal landscapes. Only the good die young. All we can do is take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of our hearts: “I am, I am, I am.” (p. 256).