Monday, October 24, 2011

The Bell Jar

Today is an awesome day because I got the new Bookmarks Magazine! It's also a sad day, because it's the last one of the year. It is convenient, though, because it comes early enough to pick goodies out of it for my Christmas list! I'm also excited to read the lists of books about Careers. All I can think about is waiting on bar results, so I'm interested to see what books they have listed under "Attorney." And in case I fail, I'll have to check other career option too. :)

On a more somber note, I'd like to talk a little bit about my most recent read, "The Bell Jar." I've read just enough about the life of Sylvia Plath to know that this is a very autobiographical novel. Which is what makes it so amazing and so heartbreaking.

The novel, of course, is the story of Esther Greenwood, a bright, beautiful and blooming talent, and her descent into mental illness and her attempt to live a productive life in spite of her obstacles. It opens with her in New York, working for a magazine - a position that she won by way of a brilliantly written application. In fact, Esther tells us, writing and winning scholarships is the one thing she's good at. But Esther feels lost and uncertain and alone. Once home, she continues slipping into a depression so consuming that she eventually attempts suicide. She is, however, miraculously discovered at the moment before death. Because she is a famous local author and poet, her suicide attempt and hospitalization is widely publicized. Through this embarrassing invasion, Esther gains the patronage and support of an understanding and compassionate rich woman who promises to fund Esther's recovery in return for Esther's promise to try to heal, and with the hope that Esther will return to school once she is recovered.

The language of this novel is beautiful and poetic, but not over the top. Plath knows how to create imagery and evoke emotion using minimal, but impactful language. What is most amazing about the language is that it retells the novel's events in a way that the reader takes the trip right along with Esther. This is not a story of what happened to some woman - it's not as distant as that. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I felt everything Esther felt, but I did empathize and I did understand what she felt like - at every step of the way.

Plath's brilliance isn't in writing a moving novel of an extraordinary woman's trip to the depths of despair and back up again, although that's what she did. Her brilliance is in making Esther not seem crazy. Esther did some crazy things - throwing all her clothes out of the window of her New York apartment, for example. But even those moments which, from a distance, seem irrational, seem and feel like the only rational choice - both to Esther and to the reader.

Everything Esther does seems and feels logical and smart. I was surprised when her mother wondered why Esther couldn't get out of bed or why Esther didn't want to take a stenography course. It seemed obvious to me. I totally sympathized with Esther when she wanted to explain how she felt to someone, but it just seemed like too much work - it was easier to let them come to their own conclusions, because even if she tried to explain, she probably couldn't articulate it anyway. I do this fairly often in my own life. Esther's fears about sex and the pressure she felt because of her immense talent were a terrible burden - why couldn't everyone else understand? I understood even though I do not have a great talent. I understood because Sylvia Plath made me understand.

As if all of this weren't amazing enough, if we think about Sylvia as Esther, the accomplishment of this novel stands out even more. This is not a novel written by a psychologist or a therapist; it isn't written by someone who is trying to explain something using clinical terms or common symptomology. This is a novel written by someone who struggled with depression her whole life, and it is written about a particularly difficult time in that bleak life. While in theory it is not surprising that a poet could write well about something with which she is well acquainted, the amazing part is how she was able to write so clearly and with such objectivity. She doesn't get mired down in self-pity or whining. Her ability to separate from herself, and to observe and explain that time of her life with such a strong voice is nothing short of miraculous.

I was afraid this novel would be really dark and gloomy, but it's not. It's perfectly readable, with language that is poetic, but not oppressive. Sometimes, because Esther's mind is so fuzzy - being so uncertain about everything - the novel gets a little fuzzy and dreamlike, but this is only evidence of the brilliance of a writer that uses language to mimic her protagonist's mindset. At other times, the scenes are so vivid and sharply written that they actually hurt to read.

Again, I only know enough about Sylvia Plath to know that "The Bell Jar" is basically a true story. Which makes me want to know more about her. I have begun reading "Her Husband" which is a biography of Ted Hughes that is centered around his marriage to and relationship with Plath. I've also added a couple of Sylvia Plath biographies to my TBR list.

I am not a fan of poetry (either because I'm not smart enough OR because I'm too lazy), so I doubt I'll spend much time reading Plath's poetry - her main claim to fame other than her eventual suicide. But I would like to read some books that talk about her poetry and what it meant to her and to Hughes. What a shame that so brilliant a mind is no longer producing great literature.

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