The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath

If Aliens were ever to visit us (if they haven’t so far) they might think that our everyday lives are simple and easy. They wouldn’t know (or maybe they do) how difficult it is to cope with problems that might seem trivial to some. I once met a counsellor friend of mine who said that a majority of people, during their first session, express their views that their problems are probably unimportant compared to others: after all, surely, there are more severe cases of people who are chronically depressed. He told me the first thing he tries to explain to them is what seems like a minor disappointment to one, could feel like the heaviest burden to another person.

This is more or less the case of Plath’s heroine, Esther Greenwood, a college student from Massachusetts who travels to New York. She has won a magazine contest along with 12 other girls, who stay with her in a NY hotel, all of them expected to live life to the full, with all expenses paid for a month. While Esther embarks on what would for many be a dream life, full of dinner and cocktail parties, the first signs of worry begin to appear. From the first pages, we learn that she is concerned about the Rosenbergs execution. Instead of immersing herself in the wealth of city-life experiences that she encounters, she gradually becomes disoriented.

Apart from the Rosenbergs, it seems Esther has a lot of other things to worry about. Her colleagues’ obsessions with superficial things; the need to find a boyfriend because she feels she has to; her work as a guest editor. What seem to be minor upsetting things that most adults would find annoying, grow into something bigger. Society’s expectations slowly start to repress her and people around her seem to have different things in mind for her. Recognition from her circle does not come when Esther wins awards and scholarships but when she dates a handsome guy, who even expects her to forget her poetry ambitions. Compromise all over the place.

Plath does not attempt to deconstruct Ester’s identity but rather lets it reflect itself through different means: magazines, photographs and mirrors. When Esther reads about her in the headlines towards the end of the book, she is troubled as to how she perceives herself, who she is and what the rest of the world thinks about her. But one does not have to wait until the end to see something is wrong. Early in the novel, Esther reads a story about a fig tree, and later in the book she makes an analogy with her life, where each fig represents the different choices she has to make: a professor, husband and family, a poet. Choosing one means losing the rest, therefore she is allowed to pick only one fig. As a result of her indecision, the figs finally rot and fall on the ground.

The restrain also seems to expand: she is not allowed to be the melancholy person she is, nor to pursue her poetry plans. What is more difficult for her is to make the right choice, for it seems there is the constant pressure only to choose one path: Will she become the wife of a good-looking husband and have a family, a lonely poet or a successful editor? When all this force finally intimidates her, the bell jar appears with all its symbolism, a claustrophobic state of depression she cannot escape from.

It’s no surprise that the precision of Plath’s poetry can be found in her only novel. The sentences are often short, with powerful vocabulary, occasionally sarcastic, other times suggestive — but always to the point. Esther’s thoughts resemble a memoir or diary, but with plenty of room for extra commentary and speculative observation of the world around her. When the illness seems to take over towards the second half of the book, Plath’s writing doesn’t become fragile nor poignant but reinforces it strength of delivering raw emotions through the unfiltered thoughts of her main character.

This post was written with the news that Kirsten Dunst will direct the Bell Jar to what seems to be her directorial debut. Whether she will succeed or not (the task seems difficult indeed) waits to be seen. In the meanwhile, I suggest to newcomers to read the book at once: its themes are more relevant today than ever (and one wonders what Plath would have to say about our age of selfies and narcissistic self-promotion through the social media). And even for those who have already read it, maybe now that the movie has been announced, it is a good chance to re-visit this affecting novel.

Repost from my website: The High Arts Review