‘Do you know what a poem is, Esther? A piece of dust.’
‘So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.’
I have a confession to make: until very recently I believed wholeheartedly in the mythology surrounding Sylvia Plath, which represents the author as someone grim, depressive and entirely unrelatable. I was introduced to Plath through her poetry collection Ariel, from which I failed to gleam very much at all, though there’s a good chance that’s the result of my own failings as a reader. Either way, after struggling through a seminar on Ariel, Plath and her poetic speaker were inseparable to me, and I resented them both*. After reading The Bell Jar, however, I am having to reconsider my whole position on Plath.
Esther Greenwood, a literature student and fledgling writer, is the protagonist and narrator of Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel. With the exceptions of her problematic relationship with Buddy Willard and her overly-zealous approach to her studies, Esther’s life appears to be one of privilege: she has been awarded a prestigious internship in New York and her mother has made great sacrifices to give Esther as many opportunities as possible (‘the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons and the water-colour lessons and the dancing lessons’). This allows the novel to explore one of the most pervasive prejudices surrounding depression: that some people have a greater ‘right’ to be depressed than others, and that seemingly fortunate and successful people like Esther have no right whatsoever to label themselves depressed. Esther’s mother gives voice to this misconception, telling her daughter ‘I knew you’d decide to be all right again.’ According to this reductive understanding, Esther’s emotional turmoil is something she has brought upon herself and which, by extension, she can simply choose to snap out of. Not even Esther herself understands her mental state, never mind exercising any degree of control over it. In spite of her achievements, Esther merely feels numb, as though just going through the motions of living: ‘I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel.’ The bell jar of depression is a prison from Esther can’t escape; her whole outlook on the world is dictated by the prism through which she perceives it.
Through Esther’s plight, the novel engages with a further dilemma: how to react when confronted with unsettling truths about the world we inhabit. Esther desires to return to childhood and its accompanying innocence, but such a return is impossible. The most unsettling aspect of maturity is arguably learning the stark truth that one day, we all must die. Esther is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the idea of death; her mixed response to witnessing medical students conduct a human dissection demonstrates the difficult of comprehending this ugly reality. After her exposure to the cadavers, Esther is unable to reclaim her past ignorance: ‘For weeks afterwards, the cadaver’s head…floated up behind my eyes and bacon at breakfast.’ The discovery of mortality raises yet another conundrum: how to live the best life possible in the meantime. Esther’s anxiety about her options after college was the feature of the novel I identified most strongly with (while I’m certain that career options for women in general have improved vastly in the interim, I’m sure graduate prospects for literature students haven’t changed much since the 60s). Plath captures the fear provoked by this question perfectly. Esther envisions all her future options arranged as figs on a tree, and pictures herself starving to death in front of it, as ‘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.’
While not necessarily a more uplifting experience than my first encounter with Plath, I am very very glad that I gave her writing a second chance.
*Before you judge me too harshly, I dare you to try listening to Plath’s own reading of her poem Daddy without shuddering. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM