Sylvia Plath’s classic novel The Bell Jar was always one of those books I knew I had to read. Drawn more and more to it over the last couple of years, I’ve found that The Bell Jar has easily become one of the most important books I have read through my twenties.
For the last fifty years, The Bell Jar has continued to haunt and intrigue its readers, leaving a mark that cannot be erased.
Semi-autobiographical, the novel follows Plath’s alter-ego Esther Greenwood, a young writer fresh out of college, who is sent to New York after winning an all-expenses-paid internship at a prestigious magazine. She and eleven other girls are put up in a hotel and receive invitations to a whirlwind of glamorous events. In spite of this, Esther’s world remains grey and she cannot enjoy herself. ‘I was supposed to be having the time of my life,’ she says.
Gradually, she spirals further into a mental breakdown. ‘The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.’
There are few writers who have written about the human psyche with the kind of brutal, harrowing honesty that Sylvia Plath has. One of the greatest poets and writers in the history of literature, her voice is captivating.
At age 30 she took her own life. Though much has been said of the darkness that engulfed her, Sylvia was also a bright, inquisitive person, endlessly curious about life and the world around her. Through her honesty, she is entirely relatable.
For me, her desire to write well and constantly move forward with her writing instantly struck a chord.
In The Bell Jar, Esther has done well academically all her life. To finish her internship in the city and be rejected from any further writing endeavours, unable to move forward – this was a very real fear I encountered as well after graduating. What now?
‘Not to be sentimental, as I sound,’ Sylvia wrote in her Journals, ‘but why the hell are we conditioned into the smooth strawberry-and-cream Mother-Goose-world, Alice-in-Wonderland fable, only to be broken on the wheel..?’
She also explored society’s expectations (and limitations) of women.
In The Bell Jar she writes, ‘I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet… I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.’
Through it all, Sylvia wanted to rise above.
‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story,’ she also writes in The Bell Jar.
‘From the tip of every branch, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
‘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.’
Then, in her Journals: ‘I can never read all the books I want. I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.’
Though she was gone too soon, through her writing Sylvia will live on forever.