The Misery Chick: Revisiting (and loving) The Bell Jar

Warning: I spoil The Bell Jar kinda, but not too much. Also I feel guilty for not using page numbers. Sorry!

My high school nickname was “Debbie Downer”; when I said something about, I don’t know, the world going to hell or something, my best friend would often shout out, “Debbie Downer! Wah wah!” When I was a teenager, I idolized no one more than Daria Morgendorffer and I emulated her in many ways; if anyone had watched Daria, I could have just as easily been called “the misery chick.” Another pop culture role model of mine was Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You. I know I read The Bell Jar on my own high school, and I probably read it because Kat read it. I have the distinct memory of spending a two-hour bus ride back from a band festival in my itchy symphonic band dress, trying to plow through Plath’s novel while people in the percussion session kept shoving food garbage onto the seat next to me. Other than that, I had no idea what was between the covers.

Until this past month. I chanced upon the audiobook version of The Bell Jar at the library and checked it out immediately. I just moved into a new apartment and I volunteer at a local library and thought maybe it was time to fill those silent hours with literature. I had great success listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants while packing up from my previous house. Before my experiences with audiobooks had just let my mind wander, but either I’ve changed or I’ve trained myself with years of podcasts.

The one-sentence summary of The Bell Jar is that it’s the story of Esther Greenwood’s mental breakdown and consequent institutionalization in the 1950s. In some ways, that’s all there is to the plot. But the novel is so much more than that: the novel is the portrait of the dissolution of a young woman’s psyche, a young woman who has worked hard all her life, and is a talented writer, and seems like she should have it together.

I read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in the eleventh grade AP English (probably after my forgettable reading of The Bell Jar). Eleventh grade was one of the toughest years for me emotionally for a variety of reasons. We read “Daddy” in class. I wrote a paper on “Lady Lazarus” that received the first “perfect” score my teacher had given out on an English paper all year. Again, I remember loving the poem intensely at the time, but when an episode in Season Five of Mad Men came out with the same title, I was shocked that the final lines, which might as well be one of my rallying cries, had evaporated from my memory:

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

So…why the Sylvia Plath amnesia?

Just before checking out the audiobook of The Bell Jar, I went to see Salinger, a documentary about the life and fame of J.D. Salinger. I tried to read The Catcher in the Rye when I was a shitty fifteen-year-old. I hated the book too much to finish it. Holden Caulfield was an asshole, the kind of shitty fifteen-year-old I couldn’t relate to at all (or maybe I could relate to him too much, but the voice is so annoying). I tried Franny and Zooey instead, and couldn’t finish that either because I thought J.D. Salinger was an asshole.

I think I got what I expected out of Salinger. A lot of it was fan boy service to Salinger—not just some of the people who’d driven to rural New England to track him down to profess their love or people who knew him. Some of it was just actors. I mean, I love Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Edward Norton, but what exactly are they doing in a literary biography but gush? Salinger has enough fans in authors, professors, friends of his, whatever.

Salinger kind of solidified what I’d assumed about J.D. Salinger: he was a dick. He saw terrible things during the war, he had a hard time dealing with fame, he went from struggling to be noticed by The New Yorker to the toast of mid-century literature. He also married a member of the Nazi Party, he treated his wife (different wife) and children horribly, and creeped on teenage girls all the damn time. I know we all forgive our heroes their shortcomings, but Salinger is not my hero and I was totally grossed out by the biographical details I learned about him, no matter how revolutionary he was as a writer. Bad English Major. I don’t even care, and anyway I know I’ll have to read Catcher in the Rye one day. I even own a copy. Is that hypocritical? Whatever.

After sitting through Salinger, I started to listen to The Bell Jar and it shocked me. I know it seems like every book I post about shocks me, but they all really do, I promise. I haven’t read a lot of literature from the 1960s, but The Bell Jar seemed way ahead of its time and very relatable to someone who was born a quarter century after Plath died.

The relatability is perhaps best summed up by one of most famous symbols in the novel, the fig tree, which appears at one of the many moments where Esther agonizes over having the world at her feet. But the novel has a much more feminist bent than I remember: Esther is determined to take control of her own sexuality and has some really harsh stuff to say about marriage. At one point (I don’t have an exact quote), Esther says something about how she doesn’t want to do anything a man tells her to do. I’ve found the following quote online:

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.

Again, I’m not sure what was going on at the time, but this novel came out the same year as The Feminine Mystique, which is widely credited with jump-starting second-wave feminism. Plath also died in 1963, which means that she never got to see the directions feminism would go from there, or live in a time where women had wide access to contraception (The Pill became available to the public in 1960, but it wasn’t always easy to get). But even now, this stance is still somewhat controversial; I can imagine what it would have been like fifty years ago.

I am so glad I took the time to revisit The Bell Jar. I wanted to gorge myself on the prose; I believed my creative writing professor’s saying that writing poetry is the key to writing better fiction. During my first listening session, I loved the following quote so much I took the time to copy it verbatim:

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you’re the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction. Every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour.

I’ve had these feelings. I still have this feeling, this exact feeling. And the best thing about the audiobook was that these feelings and thoughts of Esther’s were perfectly expressed by the reader, Maggie Gyllenhaal. If I ever read the text of the novel again, I will hear Gyllenhaal’s voice. She was just perfect.

I was definitely the only person who raised their hand when our American History teacher asked our class, “How many of you consider yourselves a feminist?” When I got to college, there was a whole club for feminism (I dropped out of it after a year, though, because I am lame). In my freshman dorm I said something like, “I’m not a big fan of poetry, but I really like Sylvia Plath.”

I was laughed at for that statement, who promptly dismissed both me and Sylvia Plath. I was The Misery Chick again: high on my own depression. (Looking back, if I’d brought this up in the feminist group, I probably would have gotten the support I needed.) I lived through a couple of years of other assholes dismissing Jane Austen and feminist critics for reasons that make no sense to me. In my senior year, one of the classes I took mentioned Plath’s poem “Tulips” in a theoretical reading. We read the poem, and one of the most-admired, academically rigorous professors on the faculty (who happens to be a man) extolled Plath’s skill as a poet. The person who dismissed Sylvia Plath years earlier was in that class and seemed to agree with the professor. I don’t care if that’s not the way he feels, I felt vindicated.

A friend recently asked me if I thought people thought Sylvia Plath was a better writer than she really was because she committed suicide. I told him I’d found the opposite to be true: people dismiss her as crazy or weak because she committed suicide. It seems like to the average person, the bottom line of Sylvia Plath is that she committed suicide, and it casts a whole tone over her work for them. But we don’t let Hemingway’s suicide color our reading of his works. We generally don’t let J.D. Salinger’s bizarre idiosyncracies color our reading of his, either. Usually it’s frowned upon to let biography interfere with literary products. In my own feelings on Salinger, you’ll just have to take my word that I try to separate Salinger the asshole author from Salinger the asshole person. But most authors don’t have flattering biographies.

The Bell Jar is dark and deals explicitly with suicide and depression. A lot of Plath’s poetry is dark, too, and details the experience of struggling with psychological issues. But isn’t that what makes her work not just relatable, but important? Given some of the stuff I’ve read by present and past male authors on women in general and female authors, it seems like some of what I’ve experienced hearing Plath (and Austen, and feminist philosophers) being dismissed has a lot of it has to do with good, old-fashioned, straight-up sexism.

It doesn’t matter that Salinger wasn’t particularly well-received and may not be factually up to snuff. A group of people still made it and it has an audience. People love Catcher in the Rye, it’s read in high schools all over the country, it’s like the quintessential postmodern bildungsroman. When I listened to Maggie Gyllenhaal read The Bell Jar, I thought, Why not The Bell JarIt made me angry, even. Why does the bildungsroman of postmodern America have to have a whiny prep school asshole at its center? Is The Bell Jar the best novel ever written? No. But how many people are assigned one over the other in school as literature they can relate to? How many people choose to read one novel over the other? How often is that choice made on what is celebrated in popular culture?

So after my incredibly long, imperfect rant filled with what I’m sure are plenty of arguments I can’t articulate beyond “this is how I feel”: revisiting The Bell Jar has helped me reclaim a part of myself I’ve been suppressing. I love this novel. If you don’t, I don’t care. If you don’t think Sylvia Plath had mad skills, I don’t care either. I’m going to pull out one of my favorite Jane Austen quotes for this and every occasion of dismissing Plath as a misery chick or Austen as chick lit: “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

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Journeys End in Lovers Meeting, or, Shirley Jackson is Pretty Awesome

Spoiler alert: This post contains some spoilers for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and links to an article that spoils more Shirley Jackson works. But I try not to spoil too much when I think people should read a work, which is the case here.

My book club’s selection for October was The Haunting of Hill House, which we paired with a viewing of The Shining. I picked the book. For one thing, Halloween is coming up so it seemed festive. For another, I read this article and posted the link to Teh Facebooks, which spurred a friend of mine to tell me that she’s a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s work.

I read “The Lottery” in tenth grade, a short story with a shocking ending that sent a deluge of hate mail Shirley Jackson’s way in 1948. I saw the godawful adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House made in 1999—I thought it was good because I was at an age where I thought anything over a PG rating must be “good.” I don’t necessarily read a lot of the horror genre, but I love authors who are sour on society like Flannery O’Connor and (to a less grotesque extent) Jane Austen. Shirley Jackson is very sour on society.

I really liked The Haunting of Hill House, pure and simple. Jackson’s prose is clean and clear like water. When I have read novels that are supposed to be “scary,” gore doesn’t tend to scare me (except in Blood Meridian, but Blood Meridian is always the exception to me). When I was in high school and a frequent movie-goer, Hostel was the goriest movie in town. Hostel didn’t scare me; Capote scared me because it showed the sequence the whole Clutter family were unwittingly murdered in their beds for no reason. A single, silencing shotgun blast will keep me up at night, but torture porn puts me to sleep.

The Haunting of Hill House is a classic set-up: Dr. Montague invites some people who have experienced psychic episodes to spend the summer at Hill House. Hill House has a tragic history steeped in deaths, and no one who ties to stay there can stand to stay. Dr. Montague invites Eleanor Vance, Theodora (or just Theo), and Luke Sanderson (the heir to the house) to stay so he can run his paranormal experiments. Hill House doesn’t disappoint for strange happenings.

If you read the article linked above, you read that Shirley Jackson had a morbid sense of humor. In The Haunting of Hill House, she does a remarkable job of balancing this humor with the scary parts. The characters are all rather wry and sarcastic with one another until they’re not—and that’s usually the point where something scary happens (or sad; Eleanor’s life has been no picnic). This technique put me on edge every time.

While Jackson’s narrator shifts the perspectives a little bit, it’s most closely aligned with Eleanor throughout the novel. Eleanor is a troubled young woman—young in mind more than body. At thirty-two, she still lives with her sister after spending her twenties nursing her sick mother. Eleanor has an imagination that runs wild from the novel’s beginning, and as her time in the house wears on it’s harder and harder for both Eleanor and the reader to discern where reality ends and her imagination begins. This is done so well you almost don’t notice it, and then have to go back and do a second read to try to untangle what just happened.

To be truthful, one of the strongest emotions I felt while reading The Haunting of Hill House was anger directed squarely at Stephen King. I have a complicated relationship with Stephen King, which I’ve addressed elsewhere. I read Carrie in seventh grade—mainly to scare people. I moved onto The Shining, I loved The Green Mile, but ‘Salem’s Lot was the last straw. I gradually fell out of love with Stephen King, but I was still a fan enough that I watched the terrible miniseries Rose Red. So intrigued was I by the story beneath the awfulness that I even read the accompanying Diary of Ellen Rimbauer to see if maybe it would be better (it wasn’t, but I guess it wasn’t actually written by Stephen King?).

In under five pages of The Haunting of Hill House, the reader has been introduced to Hill House itself and its haunting/psychic energy/scary stuff going on, and also to Eleanor Vance, who psychically triggered a storm of stones to fall on her house as a child. Both Carrie and Rose Red feature troubled young female characters with telekinetic ability who experience an unexplained rain of stones. Both Rose Red and The Shining feature buildings with tragic histories that are somehow alive, or conscious, and prey on the people inside of them. So if you find yourself wanting more from Stephen King than just scary stuff, Shirley Jackson may be your answer. (Yes, I know King doesn’t just write horror, but that’s what he’s known for I think we can all agree.)

I don’t want to punish someone for being successful, but it troubles me that Stephen King can leave his publisher over not offering him enough millions of dollars, while Shirley Jackson died in relative obscurity. I’m not sure I’ve ever been afraid of anything written by Stephen King. What amazed me about The Haunting of Hill House was that I found it scary even though—unlike The Shining (film and book) and The Haunting—is that there aren’t obvious ghosts, like previous caretakers urging other characters to kill. There is no axe-wielding dad. There is only Hill House, Eleanor, and the unexplained. Is Eleanor losing her mind? Is some kind of supernatural mental ability causing the strange happenings? It’s never truly explained, but I prefer it that way, because I’m never feel beaten over the head.

Since I read The Haunting of Hill House, I have bought three more Shirley Jackson novels and a collection of short stories. I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

OMG Everyone Go Out and Read Anne Brontë RIGHT NOW

Warning: I will try not to spoil The Tenant of Wildfell Hall too, too much because I loved it and want everyone to read it because I now thoroughly believe Anne Brontë doesn’t get the attention she deserves.

This spring, I read the three Jane Austen novels I’d never read before: Northanger AbbeyEmma, and Sense and Sensibility. The only thing I love more than nineteenth century Brit Lit is crossing great works of literature off my to-read list, so I decided to un-shame my English major self by getting my Brontë on. Reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights put a Brontë bee in my bonnet (get it? bonnets? the nineteenth century? I slay myself). I’ve been struggling to finish Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for months, but today I emerged victorious. And I really, really loved this novel.

In my post on Wuthering Heights, I say much more about the Brontë family history. Anne’s work has never achieved the lasting popularity and place in the literary establishment as her sisters’, and her work is very different from theirs. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are Romantic novels brimming with Gothic elements: creepy houses, ghosts, and other supernatural forces. Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff are textbook Byronic heroes: Jane Eyre struggles to remain true to herself in spite of her love for the former, and Catherine Earnshaw’s love for the latter drives them both to ruin and death. As Kate Beaton says much more beautifully than I ever could, that is not how Anne Brontë works.

I haven’t yet read Anne Brontë’s first novel, Agnes Grey, which I understand is the story of a governess (much like Jane Eyre in that respect, but both Anne and Charlotte were employed as governesses in real life). But from what everyone knows (at least, those of us who know Anne Brontë even exists), Anne wrote realist novels and her work shows a great deal of moralism. Not that Jane Eyre is immoral or anything, but from what I’ve read in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I don’t think Anne Brontë’s characters would stand for Mr. Rochester’s bullshit.

First, a tangent: in a class I took on the Victorian Social World, we read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I’d really like to re-read this novel in light of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’d also like to re-read Charlotte Brontë’s least successful novel, Shirley, which I read the following semester in another class. Both North and South and Shirley are what we called “social problem novels” (a term I prefer to “social novel”), and both specifically address millworkers suffering at the hands of their unfeeling mill-owners—which sympathetic young women of strong moral character try to fix. (These novels are very similar and Gaskell was Charlotte Brontë’s friend and biographer…coincidence? Another reason to re-read.)

When I read North and South, I was bored by the paragraphs of moral debate that make up much of the dialogue between characters. Shirley I enjoyed much more: all the moral debate is still there, but a lot of it is explicitly feminist and there’s some great Brontë fire burning underneath the dialogue (the Brontë sisters are full of rage and it’s the best). While Charlotte was writing Shirley, her remaining three siblings died, including Anne, and I’ve read that some of the characters may even be based on Anne and Emily as she worked through her grief—it’s certainly more in Anne’s mode than that typical of Charlotte. Though I’ve read Shirley was popular and well-received at the time of its publication, today it remains the least popular of Charlotte’s works.

Back to TenantThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins detailing the life of a gentleman farmer named Gilbert Markham. Gilbert lives with his mother, brother, and sister out in the countryside. He has a girl he’ll probably marry and a social circle of neighbors. When a young widow, Helen Graham, and her son, Arthur, begin renting out an old mansion in the vicinity, everything changes for Gilbert. Helen doesn’t really fit in with the others and she has some pretty radical ideas about women’s place in society and child-rearing. Rumors begin to abound about Helen, and her neighbors gossip about her and socially isolate her. Gilbert grows to fall in love with her at the expense of his relationship with his community, but she pushes him away. Finally, she gives him her diary to set the record straight.

Here I don’t want to get too far into the spoilers, but I’ll say what’s already on the back of any edition: Helen is not a widow. She has taken her son and fled from an abusive marriage to an alcoholic (Arthur Huntingdon) and lives at Wildfell Hall in hiding. Over half the novel is recounted through Helen’s diary entries, beginning with her as a young single woman and details the years-long dissolution of her marriage. Once Gilbert knows her secret, they both struggle with their feelings, social obstacles—you know, the stuff of high drama.

Tenant is very much a social problem novel. The introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition sheds light on the temperance movement in nineteenth-century England: with alcohol being mass-produced for the first time (and much stronger than home brews), there was an epidemic of alcoholism throughout England. Because much of Anne’s papers have been lost or destroyed, it’s not apparent the degree to how much Arthur Huntingdon is based on the Brontës’ brother, Branwell, but Branwell was a bit of a real-life Byronic hero himself. He was an alcoholic, an opium-eater, fathered an illegitimate child, had an affair with his employer’s wife (at the same house where Anne worked as a governess), racked up a ton of debt, and then died of tuberculosis. Even without this biographical tidbit, it’s fascinating to read Tenant alongside the more popular novels by Charlotte and Emily. Anne’s Byronic hero, Arthur Huntingdon, shares a lot of traits with Rochester and Heathcliff, but his romantic appeal wears off pretty fast and he becomes more the villain of the novel than anything else.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was shocking for its time. I found it shocking to this day: I don’t pretend to be as widely read in Victorian novels as I’d like, but I don’t recall reading another novel of the time period that deals explicitly and at such length about alcoholism, abuse (physical and emotional), extramarital sex, and the plight of women to have not enough social standing to become independent agents (please correct in the comments if you have taken a class with me and know otherwise). The novel was written in 1848, it takes place in the 1820s. Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, to divorce in England required great expense and intervention by either ecclesiastical courts or by Act of Parliament (with some exceptions, such as a wife’s adultery—I only learned this through the end-notes and introduction to this novel). She would have had no rights to the custody of her son.

The part of Tenant that I responded to the most strongly was by far the feminist overtones. The Wikipedia article calls it “the first sustained feminist novel”—it must certainly be one of the earliest. Of course, novels by Jane Austen and even Charlotte Brontë deal with the lower social status of women in the nineteenth century. But I must agree that Anne Brontë’s is one of the first to have feminism as one of its central tenants—that is to say, it addresses and challenges explicitly the plight of women’s social positions (i.e., subordinate to men) at large (or at least as a widespread problem among the characters’ social class). Helen is treated horribly by her husband (and so are her husband’s friends’ wives treated by theirs), but she is not a shrinking violet by almost any means. She’s a fighter through and through; she struggles against her husband’s bullshit and the bullshit of other men, she fights to be independent and tells other women not to settle for an asshole just to be married, and even in hiding at Wildfell Hall she lectures her new social circle on why “boys will be boys” is a crock. I mean, we are STILL arguing about “boys will be boys” over 150 years later.

Structurally, the book is kind of hard to deal with: it’s written as an epistolary novel. Gilbert Markham writes to his friend Halford at the beginning and end of the novel. More than half the novel is taken up by Helen’s diary entries, which are presumably being sent verbatim to Halford. Helen’s diary really makes up the emotional core of the novel, but the epistolary format is a little clunky and the two narrative voices don’t seem to differ all that much. Gilbert can be kind of an asshole sometimes (and sometimes he takes on some pretty Byronic traits that can be terrifying), and Helen’s unwavering morality can get tiresome. Still, though, what I liked about this novel far outweighed what I didn’t like about it.

Finally, we get to a couple more important points I want to mention. I’ve been looking into Anne Brontë’s biography. As we know, Charlotte outlived her siblings and was probably complicit in building a lot of the myths surrounding the family and may have even destroyed some of her sisters’ papers and other manuscripts. Wikipedia has it that while Agnes Grey’s popularity paled to that of Wuthering Heights (the two were published in one volume after the success of Jane Eyre), Tenant sold out quickly and caused quite a splash. But when it came time for it to be re-published in 1850 after Anne’s death, Charlotte Brontë suppressed the re-printing. When Tenant was re-printed, it was heavily edited to the point that it barely resembled the original. In fact, these crap editions still exist today, so be sure to obtain a copy based on the original text, such as the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 

And now I just really, really, really want to read books about the Brontës because they are fascinating to me—and I, for one, really want to find out what the hell was up with Charlotte Brontë suppressing the facts and works of her sisters. And I’ve decided my goal for this year is to finish reading every novel published by the Brontës. I probably won’t re-read Shirley, but if I can get through VilletteThe Professor, and Agnes Grey, I will feel sufficiently Brontë’d.

Lit Nerds Abroad: My Recent Trip to England

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I do not think of myself as well-traveled. At this point, I have taken four short trips to Europe, never exceeding ten days, and have spent the majority of that time in London. I never studied abroad (something I now … Continue reading