Saturday, October 23, 2010

Redux #35 - "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

I've never been this far behind in writing about the books I've read. I was tempted to give up writing about my reading altogether, but I realized that I like having this mini-diary of my readings and impressions. I don't want to lose that out of simple laziness. My plan is to catch up this weekend and then never let myself get behind again. I'm a little worried the reviews will suffer from this long passage of time, but I guess something is better than nothing, even if I can't even remember the characters' names anymore.

Anyway, I picked up The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath, both because I've been looking for more women authors to read, and because I had seen it on the "Classics" shelf at the library. I half expected some tedious, old-fashioned and unrelatable story that I would have to push through, but I got much more than I expected.

The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood for a short time in her young life. Esther is a talented academic attending Smith College. She spends the summer in New York after winning a prestigious internship with a magazine. Esther is at that place in her life where she is becoming an adult, where her choices will start forming the rest of her life, and she can't figure out what she wants. Eventually she falls into depression and attempts suicide, prompting several rounds of treatment.

"Wherever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air." (Ch. 15)

I found Esther Greenwood to be a disturbingly relatable character. We had so many things in common it was eerie. We're both 5'10'' with thin, boyish figures who love to eat and are pretty cheap when it comes to spending money. My favorite part of the book was the summer that Esther spent in New York. I understood exactly what she was feeling, and I was shocked and impressed by the brutal honesty that Plath described Esther's more negative thoughts and actions. I couldn't relate as much to Esther Greenwood when she fell into depression, but the writing continued to be beautiful, honest, and descriptive, and it was definitely worth reading.

One of the major themes that appears to wind itself through The Bell Jar is the idea of feminism displayed through Esther's lack of power and choices in her world. She always thought her life would be extraordinary, but stepping out into the real world shows her how limited her life might end up being. She wants to be a great writer, but doesn't want to be an ugly, old hermit of an intellectual. But Esther is also terrified that getting married will be the end of her creativity and intellectual life. Her ideas of what a woman should be have been formed by society, but at the same time she wants something more.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, 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 another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, 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." (Ch. 7)

Anyway, I was so impressed and felt like I had so much in common with Sylvia Plath, that I am now interested in reading her journals. The only problem is that I think I read somewhere that Plath wrote those journals for herself and never intended them to be published. I find it kind of stalkerish and creepy to snoop around in someone's private diary, even if she was famous and is now dead; but most likely my curiosity will get the better of my reluctance.

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