I have been continuing my mission to read the three books which Margaret Drabble said helped her to live her life, and now I am on to The Bell Jar, the one to which I was secretly looking forward the most.
Everyone knows the sad story of Sylvia Plath. I suspect like most people, I first came across Plath’s writing at school. We studied some of her poems for GCSE, which, I have to say I think is a terrible idea. There we were, a whole bunch of highly-strung, over-emotional fifteen-year-old girls, and we were given a load of depressive poems by a woman who killed herself.
Of course most of us loved Sylvia Plath. I thought she was so inspiring that I briefly considered keeping bees as an alternative to getting married. Her story continued to haunt me as I grew older. For instance, when I moved into a flat with a gas oven, she was all I could think about, and I never really got the hang of using it.
The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the narrator, doing a magazine internship one summer in New York. Esther is staying in a women-only hotel, with other girls from the magazine, all ‘bored as hell’. One night, Esther and her friend Doreen ditch one of the magazine parties for a smooth-talking DJ, which works out slightly better for Doreen than for Esther:
My drink was wet and depressing. Each time I took another sip it tasted more and more like dead water … There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.
Plath gives Esther a flat cynical voice which is dry and funny. There is great line after great line. One of my favourite moments is when Esther tells us about the first time she saw her boyfriend naked:
The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.
(Although, surprisingly, my edition says ‘the only think I could think of’, which I assume is a typo. Quite how a typo can still be in a book 50 years after publication is v puzzling.)
To start with, the way Esther finds everything ‘depressing’ and ‘demoralizing’ and boring comes across as a kind of wry humour, but it takes a bad turn when her month in New York comes to an end. She had hoped to get on to a creative writing course, but hasn’t:
All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.
So her breakdown begins in earnest and I struggled to continue, not because it isn’t a brilliant book, beautiful and compelling, but because it is painful to read about someone so miserable, so intent on ending her life. It is horrific to read of the cool calm way in which Esther weighs up her different options for suicide. Then there is a stay in a terrible asylum, where she has electroshock therapy.
Esther’s detatchment can bring a certain black humour, but it also becomes profoundly sad:
Wherever I sat … I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
At last, things take a turn for the better when a benevolent stranger pays for Esther to go to a better asylum, where she will be ‘patched, retreaded, and approved for the road’.
So The Bell Jar is about having a nervous breakdown, which is a big enough subject on its own, and yet it is about more than that. It opens, famously, by placing the time as ‘the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs’:
The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
The first thing we know about Esther Greenwood is that she feels sick at the idea of being electrocuted, and yet she is also strangely drawn to it. When she has electroshock therapy, you can’t help but link it to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, only her electric shocks are to generate a rebirth not death.
While the predominant feeling conveyed by the distancing of the bell jar is boredom, there is a violent frustration in that boredom, which is very affective. Why are there no other options, Plath is asking, why does life have to be like this? It is a similar sentiment to that felt in The Group:
I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.
It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.
This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor, and had been a private school teacher herself.
It is this, the asylum, or death, and the energy with which Esther chooses death goes to show the grimness of the other options.
In this very good article from the 1971 New York Times, Robert Scholes describes The Bell Jar as being written ‘posthumously’, that, is, ‘between suicides’:
She wrote her novel and her ‘Ariel’ poems feverishly, like a person ‘stuck together with glue’ and aware that the glue was melting.
Plath writes with ‘the authority of suicide’, weighting what she has to say with an awful significance. She is a poet. Her sentences are beautiful. And I think that is where the tragedy lies. Plath, like Esther, is a writer who would prefer to create her own fictions rather than being made to live the dreary reality of others. Esther lies in bed reading a story and reflects:
I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree.
There were no beautiful big green fig-trees in the reality of 1950s America, when intelligent women could only marry and ‘cook and clean and wash’ or be electrocuted like the Rosenbergs. If only Plath’s ‘black lines of print’ were enough for her to crawl in between and retreat inside. Instead she chose the oven. At least she has left us her black lines of print.