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 Jar? It 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.”