I was taking a chance with The Bell Jar. A fictionalised autobiography about a young woman attempting suicide is unlikely to raise the spirits when you're living through the Covid pandemic. But there were headlines in the media about how lockdowns and isolation were affecting people's mental health so it seemed like something I should read. Besides, it's generally considered a classic.
The book's protagonist is Esther Greenwood (aka its writer, Sylvia Plath), an intelligent young woman who's won a trip to New York to see what it's like to work for a magazine. She's invited to glamorous events and meets important people who could help further her career. But all is not well. She says, "I was supposed to be having the time of my life", but clearly isn't. When Esther returns home she suffers a serious mental breakdown and attempts suicide.
The main theme of the book is mental health. Esther's descriptions of sinking further and further into depression are matter-of-fact and dispassionate. She stops taking care of herself, not washing her hair or clothes, then says, "I couldn't see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.". The experience is like being trapped in a bell jar, "blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream". People don't understand the illness and search for something or someone to blame. Her mother begged "with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong", and her ex-boyfriend Buddy thinks he's partly to blame, asking, "do you think there's something in me that drives women crazy?"
In addition the book throws a spotlight on society's treatment of and expectations for women in the 1950s. Esther is often frustrated by this. She says, "I couldn't stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not."
It's not all doom and gloom tho'. Esther's naivety causes some humorous episodes, for instance her first encounter with a finger-bowl. She thought it "must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms." This reminded me of something that happened in the late 80s when I first moved to London. A group of us went to China Town for a meal and after eating I ordered jasmine tea. It arrived in a pot, with a small, handleless porcelain cup. A friend, a young man from Essex, had been chatting and didn't notice me pour out the pale liquid. He mistook the cup for a finger bowl, dipped his fingers into the tea and yelped, "F*ck me! That's hot".
But back to Esther. She eventually recovers but fears for her future. "How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?" she asks. It's a poignant irony considering what happened to Sylvia Plath.
Friday, 31 December 2021
The world itself is the bad dream
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