The Bell Jar: a review

“There are criticisms of America that the neurotic can make as well as anyone, perhaps better, and Miss Lucas makes them brilliantly.”

Critique by Lawrence Lerner at The Listener, when Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under the pen name Victoria Lucas. The equivocal nature of this sentence and similar criticisms has greatly distressed Sylvia Plath at the time of publishing.

I’ve flipped through the beginning of this book a few times and it felt like being sucked into a black hole. The world felt full of angst and emptiness, and as my eyes were being pulled by some invisible force across the page unable to look away. Reading Plath was like having a little window flick open in my mind’s eye. Her words glided and seeped in smoothly without friction. I was lucid dreaming.

I still read segments of Sylvia Plath sometimes. Reading her lines so aptly describes the feeling of gaping at a moving picture, sitting at the backseat of a passenger motor vehicle, while feeling irreparably hollow inside, not knowing where the destination is and relinquishing all control of the steering wheel.

A passage from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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 my life. And I am horribly limited.

Mad Girl’s Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Reading the beginning again at some point, I felt like Plath was writing most bizarrely but realistically, outlining a plaguing je-ne-sais-quoi sentiment. I’ve never seen anything quite like this, the words of detachment and misery thrumming somewhere inside of me. Reading the full book this third time, it becomes obvious how Esther is descending into her own apathy and pessimism, beyond what is recognizable, and reading her viewpoint sends shivers almost like bugs crawling down my back. When someone truly wants to die, every sight in life becomes a symbol for death, or a practical means to achieve death, and the lurid metaphors gradually become sinister and depleted of oxygen.

Esther’s life is the blurred memory of Plath’s own. The sexual assault she experienced was real. Esther changed after she returned home to her clapboard house from the summer at overwhelming NYC. The throbs of electricity sent into her skull, the shock therapy she received made her feel like she must have done something very wrong in her life for deserving electrocution.

The first line of The Bell Jar is breathtaking, still and motionless before the eye of the tornado spirals towards Esther where the centre can no longer hold.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

The only other opening on par is the curtain-opening lines from The Stranger. Do you have more openings to share?

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Deep sympathy. Funeral tomorrow. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday. (The Stranger by Albert Camus)

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