The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I read this book as a teenager, which I guess is pretty typical. The age of fascination with Plath’s tragic figure. A while ago as I was visiting my family home I came across the copy I read then and decided to see how much has changed. I remembered being deeply impressed by the book when I first read it. So I brought it to London and a few months later finally got to it.

Esther Greenwood has her life cut our for her. She is currently in New York on a grant, with a group of other bright your women, all interning for a women’s magazine. They go to parties, do some writing, participate in domestic product presentations and generally schmooze. Esther’s sharp sense of observation cuts through all the surface only to find a lot of emptiness under all the pretense.

At some point, all of this becomes too much and Esther has a mental breakdown. It turns out she had mental problems all the time, it’s never explained whether she is depressed or bipolar, but what is explained clearly is how bad the mental care was back then in the United States. Esther is subjected to electroshocks in a completely unprofessional way. She finally manages to change clinic and a doctor, landing with dr Nolan, who with infinite patience manages to coax her out of her shell.

While Esther tells us about her treatment we also find out more about her life. She was supposed tomarry Buddy Willard, a deadly boring college boy. The marriage decided by his bossy mother, who believed Buddy was such a catch that girls would fight over him and Esther should consider herself happy. Which she did for a while, she thought being Buddy’s stay at home wife was the apex of her dreams.

Only then a painful awakening came up. Unfortunately at a moment when she was mentally fragile and it all fell to pieces. The contract between society’s expectations, it’s preoccupation solely with the surface of things without any depth and her own dreams were too much for Esther to bear. Even as we finish ou journey with her, when she goes in front of a commission to be released from the hospital we are not certain she is ready and neither is she. Because when you think of it, who is ready for the real world?

Technically we all manage to survive with some degree of sanity, but that all comes at a cost of not noticing things on purpose because if we were to closely examine our world, our values, our lives we’d all fall into a pit of despair. That’s how far each of us is from ‘how it was supposed to be’. And yet we all carry on, thickening our skins and finding our joys where we can.

This is precisely why this book didn’t work for me this time. I’m too old, too cynical, too much used to dealing with life more or less without falling apart. Or at least to containing the fall out if I do crumble. I lost my sympathy for Esther. I appreciated her sharp observations and dark wit, but I was tempted to yell at her to do something about the things that made her suffer. It’s not going to do itself while she weeps in the corner or completely dissociates herself from reality. That’s the problem with life, no one else can live it or fix it for us, it is only ours. As unpleasant as it can sometimes be. Yet, of course, everyone feels entitled to tell us how they think we should live.

I still think it’s a good book, just its time in my life has passed.

Do you have any books like this? That you have outgrown? Books you loved at the first reading and then had you scratching your head at the second one?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

3 thoughts on “The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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