Lifting the Bell Jar

It's easy to get overwhelmed in the tumult of life. We, the angsty college kids, enticed and slightly terrified by the post-university future, by the opposite sex and the encroaching pressures of starting a family, and sometimes even by our own fearful selves - it almost seems as if Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar with us in mind.

In fact she wrote it with her in mind

Yep, this too is a novel based on the author's own life experiences traversed through in their  young adult years. The Bell Jar centers around the quiet, intelligent Esther Greenwood in the summer before her senior year of college. An aspiring writer, she has won the opportunity to spend a month in New York writing for a women's fashion magazine, showered in expensive food and clothes as she skirts the inner crest of high society. She spends her days careening about the city with her silver-haired friend Doreen, another girl in the program, playing hookie from the  events they're meant to attend, and tentatively avoiding semi-slick yet pompously annoying suiters, all the while maintaining an eloquent inner narrative, meticulously describing these things as they happen.

One of my favorite passages is Esther's (or Plath's) description of the cozy restaurant a Chilean man has taken her to on a date:

"Travel posters plastered the smoke-dark walls, like so many picture windows overlooking Swiss Lakes and Japanese mountains and African velds, and thick, dusty bottle-candles, that seemed for centuries to have wept their colored waxes red over blue over green in a fine, three-dimensional lace, cast a circle of light round each table where the faces floated, flushed and flamelike themselves"

And another takes place at a beach outing:

"A smoke seemed to be going up from my nerves like the smoke from the grills and the sun-saturated road. The whole landscape - beach and headland and sea and rock - quavered in front of my eyes like a stage backcloth"

But a deep anxiety about what direction to take her life in begins to weigh on Esther, sucking the life and enjoyment out of everything she does, containing her in her "own sour air", like a bell jar. Eventually, it leaves her incapable of even writing. The reader first catches a glimpse of her deteriorating happinness when Esther attempts to ski for the first time.

"A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the mouth and racked the hair back horizontal on my head. I was descending, but the white sun rose no higher. It hung over the suspended waves of the hills, an insentient pivot without which the world would not exist"

She spends the remainder of the story wrestling to lift this bell jar from her tired conscience.

Plath is a captivating writer. Mainly a poet rather than a novelist, she has a way with words the like of which is rarely encountered, conjuring such vivid imagery and emotion that I felt these things were really happening to me as I read. In this case, I think she is able to write Esther's story so well because it is in part her own.

"To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream"

As you may already be aware of, Plath's own story ended tragically at the age of 33 after a long struggle with depression, but don't let it dissuade you from reading her writing. Dark as it may be at times, she understands and chronicles the grapples of womanhood, passion, friendship and of love in a way that any person, depressed or radiantly happy, could relate to. Plath may have had her demons, but she channeled them into a hell of a good book.

Although I've never been one for poetry, I'll definitely be returning to Plath's work; the echoing truths of The Bell Jar won't be leaving me any time soon.

"I listened to the old brag of my heart. I am. I am. I am."