'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
'I was supposed to be having the time of my life.' — Review #135
There’s a scene in this novel that I can’t stop thinking about. It occurs on page 155 when protagonist Esther Greenwood is at the beach cooking hot dogs with some acquaintances. She grills one to ‘perfection’ and, when no one is looking, buries it. I’ve been puzzling over that all week. What does it mean? Why did Plath include it? Please understand that I love hot dogs and cannot imagine why anyone would not eat one, let alone bury it, after going through the trouble of cooking it to ‘perfection.’ I know Esther was in a dark depression in this scene, even contemplating drowning herself in the ocean, so the act could be an expression of her mental state. It could be Freudian. It could be meaningless. What I’ve concluded is: The hot dog itself is irrelevant; perfection is what’s important. Esther saw herself as the opposite of that perfection: flawed, cold, and better off dead and buried. Frankfurter burial not only symbolizes her feelings of lack of self worth and despair, but it also foreshadows her subsequent attempts to overcome them. I love puzzling over little moments like this in a book, and trying to figure out how they subtly drive the story forward. There were plenty of them in this Sunday’s selection, ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath:
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This copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ once belonged to Justine. I don’t know who Justine is, but at one point she must have passed through Los Angeles where I found her well-worn copy in The Last Bookstore. I know it was her book because she inscribed her name on the inside cover in black ink and lowercase letters. In my mind, she was a college student who purchased this copy at the school’s book store for an English course. It has clearly been read dozens of times; the pages have the softness of broken-in jeans. I believe that Justine eventually traded it in at The Last Bookstore because she travels light and wanted to swap for something new. Maybe she chose something light and fun to contrast the emotional weight of Plath’s bleak but powerful roman à clef. Maybe she chose something similar, where another author reveals her inner life and creates something haunting and beautiful:
Maybe you read ‘The Bell Jar’ in college, too. I didn’t. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it’s a chronicle of a young woman grappling with deep depression. It begins with Esther, a promising writer from Boston, visiting New York on an internship for up-and-coming college women. She goes to various events tied to the internship like parties, movie screenings and company tours. She also tries to experience New York outside of the internship bubble by hanging out with Doreen, a fellow intern who enjoys fast men, and by going out to dinner with an interpreter at the United Nations. But she never seems able to connect to anyone. She worries about boys, her future and her sexual inexperience. Her downward spiral accelerates after she is assaulted at a country club party in the suburbs. She returns to her hotel and tosses most of her clothes out the window. She takes the train back to Boston where she learns she didn’t get into a writing program. She can’t get out of bed in the morning. She can’t sleep. She contemplates suicide. Then, she tries it; burying herself in a hole in the basement and taking a bunch of sleeping pills. She is sent to an institution, where she receives shock treatments and therapy. Although the whole book is elegantly written and moves quickly, I was riveted by the second half when Esther is in the institution. I flew through it like:
I didn’t know what a bell jar was until last week when I Googled it. I figured it was something like a mason jar, but it’s more like a cousin to the snow globe: a glass covering you might put over a scientific specimen for examination. We readers are observers of Esther’s life, free to examine and ponder her actions from the outside. She feels our gaze, and is suffocating inside the enclosure created by the judgements and pressures put on her by mid-century American society, her family, school, boys, men, therapists and her fellow patients. And through her depression, she becomes a spectator to her life, rather than its agent. Eventually it seems she starts to recover: Her unexpressed grief over her father’s death is acknowledged, and she takes control over her body and sexual decisions by obtaining birth control. But I worried that the darkness would always be lurking, ready to take her again like:
Late last year, I reviewed Plath’s previously unreleased 1952 novella ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.’ It was interesting to compare that work from the beginning of her writing career to ‘The Bell Jar,’ which came 11 years later. Both are concerned with the pressures and expectations society forces upon women. Both are steeped with foreboding as their female protagonists are stalked by death, and their paths to evade doom are perilous and uncertain. With ‘Mary Ventura,’ you see a writer trying to get their footing. In ‘The Bell Jar,’ Plath is a fully realized author, in command of her voice and powerful in her craft. This book is the ur text for so many modern novels. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think of how it might have influenced other books like ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation,’ or ‘The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish’ or ‘The Book of X.’ Even though ‘The Bell Jar’ was anxiety-inducing to read, particularly during the pandemic, I feel enriched for having gotten through it. It reminded me about my own feelings of depression, and that many people are struggling with their mental health right now. We need to be there for them, and for ourselves. (If you are feeling overwhelmed right now, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has this helpful resource page.) The book is rightly a classic. If you haven’t already, you should read it. And if you have, read it again.
How it begins:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I don’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.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.
New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.
I kept hearing about the Rosenbergs over the radio and at the office till I couldn’t get them out of my mind. It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterward, the cadaver’s head—or what was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast and behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.
‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath was originally published in Great Britain under the pen name ‘Victoria Lucas’ by Heinemann in 1963. It was published in the United States in 1971 by Harper & Row Publishers. The first Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition was published in 2005. 244 pages. $14.71 at Bookshop.org.
Review #134: ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry.
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THANK YOU to everyone who attended Books on GIF’s first-ever virtual event! It was lots of fun to chat with you, and to celebrate BoG’s 4th anniversary by discussing what books you’ve been reading. We’ll do it again soon. The event is open to all newsletter subscribers. Watch this space for details!
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The newsletter will publish (mostly) biweekly again. I want to give myself some schedule flexibility, so look for reviews generally every other week. But sometimes they may come weekly. Sometimes they may take three weeks if a book is really long like ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace or ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’ by Rebecca West. Keep an eye on Twitter and Instagram to know which Sundays to expect newsletters.
Before you go:
Read this: ‘It’s Time to Take California Back from Joan Didion’ is a searing piece in Electric Lit from Myriam Gurba, whose book I’m reviewing next. Everyone who knows me knows I love Joan Didion’s writing, but this article—part take-down, part appreciation—offered a perspective about her and her relationship to California and Mexico that I hadn’t thought about before. It was eye-opening, and I loved it. Especially this lede:
Amado Vazquez, a Mexican botanist, named an orchid after Joan Didion. While that was a chic gesture, I don’t think of her as an orchid. I think of her as an onion. She’s very white, very crisp, and she makes people cry.
Read this, too: This article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Will Carroll, the drummer for legendary California thrash metal band Death Angel, and his experiences recovering from Covid-19, contains perhaps the most insane paragraph ever written in the English language:
While in the coma, Carroll said he had dreams of visiting the afterlife. He saw himself leave his body and plummet down to hell, where Satan — a woman in his case — punished him for the deadly sin of sloth, morphing him into a Jabba the Hutt-like-monster who vomited blood until he had a heart attack.
Also, read this: Heather and Leslie sent me this piece by author Megan Abbott: ‘What Is New York Without New York Bars?’ In it she describes all the bars she hangs out in and my first thought was, wow, Megan Abbott and I hang out at the same places. Then I thought about the prospect of losing so many great bars due to this pandemic, and it’s almost too much to take. There were so many good times at so many of the places Abbott lists. Like that time Donna and I went to the Blue & Gold on our first date. Or that time we had a DNAinfo event at the Black Rabbit. Or that time I randomly bumped into the Daily News copy desk at Jimmy’s Corner after Hurricane Sandy. Or that time I saw Meryl Streep at Keens. Or the that we took Ellen and Paul to the Ear Inn. I could fill a whole newsletter with stories of 169 Bar. We had some laughs. I look forward to laughing again.
Follow this: My friend Radhika is launching a monthly newsletter. Rad Dishes will feature ‘recipes, insights about food, and what pop culture I’m consuming.’ You can find more information here. I subscribed and am looking forward to the first post!
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,