The Bell Jar

The Bell JarI didn’t think I would like this book. It’s on the “snob list,” so I picked it up. I mean what is a bell jar anyway? But Sylvia surprised me. Her writing, even though the story line didn’t really interest me, was so vivid and the details so interesting and original that I really enjoyed spending time on the page.

It also promised a bit on mental illness and shock therapy, which have held a morbid interest for me lately. Sylvia Plath, aside from her poetry, is famous for sticking her head in an oven at the age of 30. Maybe this isn’t so remarkable except that she was divorced (separated?) and had guardianship of two small children at the time—and she was becoming a successful writer. Life wasn’t easy. It seems she was suffering from depression or possibly schizophrenia.

And it’s too bad. I found her writing very accessible and her personality very likable and easy to relate to, at least in the beginning of the story. In the introduction, it says she includes a lot of roman-a-clef elements, which was a new term for me and means The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical. I related strongly to her protagonist’s reactions to her trip to New York and to the structured events she had to attend there and to her social group.

From Sylvia’s description of what it was like for a woman to live and work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I find it understandable that an intelligent woman especially with Sylvia’s drive and ambition would be depressed.

Sylvia’s, I mean Ester’s (the protagonist acting as a straw man for Sylvia), depression begins with a rejection letter from a writing program that she had counted on attending. It was a big let down. Some kind of mis-wired biochemistry must have played a part in that too, or possibly it was all compounded by Sylvia’s intelligence and drive in a society that only rewarded women for childbirth.

The way Sylvia eased her story from the tale of a young twenty-something experiencing New York to her rapid decline into fantasies of suicide, unemotionally considering and discarding each method was quite masterful. It is interesting to note here that psychologists have coined the term “Sylvia Plath syndrome” to describe the high incidence of suicides among female poets.

After reading the book, I watched the movie, Sylvia, and it occurs to me that as much as Sylvia railed against the male-dominated culture of that time, in the end she succumbed to it miserably. Had she truly believed in the equal value of women and men, she would not have ended her life over the loss of a man. At the bottom of her tailspin and depression over Ted Hughes, her love or even sense of responsibility for her children did not see her through those dangerous moments.

Ultimately, I came away thinking that Sylvia was extremely self absorbed, so much so that she was unable to consider how her actions affected others, and treated others badly as a result. Granted she wasn’t sleeping well or thinking well, but she killed herself while her children were sleeping in the next room!

A spark by those entering the next day to find her could have sent the whole flat in flames. Couldn’t she have left the children with friends, claiming to have a date that night? And she locked the children in their room. What if something else had happened that night and the children needed to get out of their room? What if there had been a fire in the building? What if they had woken up and needed to go to the bathroom? What if they had found her dead on the floor?

In the end, Ted Hughes retained publishing rights over all her writing and made money from it. Her suicide seems to have reinforced the ideals of her society, basically that women were worth less.

But of course, she didn’t reason her way through all of this, and her biochemistry probably made all rational thought impossible.

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