Monday, December 23, 2013

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

A vulnerable young girl wins a dream assignment on a big-time New York fashion magazine and finds herself plunged into a nightmare. An autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath's own mental breakdown and suicide attempt, THE BELL JAR is more than a confessional novel, it is a comic but painful statement of what happens to a woman's aspirations in a society that refuses to take them seriously... a society that expects electroshock to cure the despair of a sensitive, questioning young artist whose search for identity becomes a terrifying descent toward madness.

~Print copy, 216 pages
Published: 1972 by Bantum Books (originally published 1971 by Harper & Row)

I picked this up because... well, I'm not sure why. I knew it was depressing -- it does have the words mental breakdown, suicide attempt, and despair in the summary -- but I checked it from the library and read it, on a whim.

It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The suicide attempt isn't until farther in, past the halfway mark. It's sensitive and sad, not despairing, or overly gloomy, or angsty.

Where exactly do I start? The main character, Esther Greenwood, comes back from a glamorous New York assignment to her boring, suburban life, and becomes depressed. Not specifically because she came back from a city like New York to a "boring" life, mind you, like the summary suggests. But like real life, her depression doesn't need a reason. It just happens.

Depression, I feel, is a rather sensitive topic in fiction. I read many, many more books of character's angst, or their lovestruck woes, than I do about real mental illness. And it is a relief to see it here, displayed clearly, announcing, yes, this is what depression feels like and this is a way that I don't like it being treated. It shows the real fear and helplessness and lethargy of someone trying to understand this pale, restricted world with her pale, restricted senses, and honestly wanting to get out of it.

Now, I'm not going to say it's perfect. It's not always to my liking. But it's honest. Honest in an emotional way that you don't find often enough in fiction.

For example, her desire to lose her virginity. (This book's been out for 30 years. You can use some spoilers, if you haven't read it by now.) It isn't skipped over, it isn't smoothed over, because she's a girl. It's talked about.

And so is her depression. It's talked about. She tries to kill herself -- it's explained in detail how she tried (and failed) to do it, not just the attempt that landed her in the mental hospitals, but the ones before -- the ones her mother or her doctors didn't find out about, because she couldn't do it. It shows how she feels after the electroshock, both the first time with the guy doctor and the second time with the woman doctor. The feelings are acted out in subtle ways -- how she assumes everyone thinks terribly about her, how she feels "stuck under a bell jar." (I don't think that's a direct quote, but it is something similar.)

I don't like the jumps in topic. Sometimes, it is hard to follow. And I've never understood the whole "getting rid of your virginity" thing. (Obviously, that's not a quote at all.) Esther -- well, sometimes she is hard to connect with. She sort of makes it that way. She pushes everyone away, her neighbors, her family, and sometimes even the reader. But I don't consider that a fault with her, strangely enough, because it makes her that much realer.

In the end, I suppose, I don't mind this book. Not my favorite, maybe not something I'd reread, but certainly is thought-provoking and honest and sad. Sad books aren't thrown out of my books-to-read just because they're sad. But I suppose I would recommend this book to the sort of scholarly person who wants to ruminate on the sadder aspects of life, the ugly aspects like mental illness, that no one else seems to talk about -- especially in a 30-year-old book, about a woman in a very patriarchal world, who sticks out.

3.5 stars. (I'll round that to a 4.)
Have a blessed day.


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