The Bell Jar/Sylvia Plath: Reflections

Friday, July 5, 2013

It wasn't until relatively late in my literary life that I began to read all the books that I was supposed to read—to assemble the library expected of a writer. I'd read biographies and histories for much of my younger life—the books expected of a person with a degree in the History and Sociology of Science. I never took a proper literature course, save for the one I nearly bungled on Wordsworth and the Romantics my freshman year at Penn. My first conversation with a real writer happened when I was already a mother and drove myself to a downtown store to meet Fae-Myenne Ng. My son was five before I sat in my first writing workshop with Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons—before I heard, for the first time, the language of critique and process.

There are gaps, in other words, huge gaps in my literary education, and there always will be. I had not, for example, ever read Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, until this week. Which is zany, I know, because a dear friend, Kate Moses, wrote Wintering, a Sylvia Plath novel, and because I have freaked out myself (and sometimes my students) listening to Plath read her own poems on audio tapes. But The Bell Jar? I had not read it.

It's been sitting here for the past six months, along with dozens of other books I bought in an effort to improve my education. I chose to read it on a day of deep but temporary illness, which was not, many of my Facebook friends warned, one of my best ideas. Still, I was intrigued, from the start, by the chatty quality of the book's opening pages—this Esther (so much like Sylvia) reporting on her summer in New York as a winner of a fashion magazine contest. Days were spent "working" at the magazine, which is to say receiving gifts and going on adventures and writing from time to time for the editor. Nights were spent in a girls' hotel, the Amazon. Or that's where the nights were supposed to be spent. But these were girls in New York City, and there were hungers.

New York, through the eyes of the heroine, presented on the first page:
New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.
That cindery dust is a forewarning, as is the early obsession with the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, and soon what appears to be a straightforward account of a growing-up summer fractures and splinters, and time comes undone. Esther is searching, first, for a reason to live. Then she is searching for a way to die. The words climb over themselves. The scenes see-saw. It is all both naive and awful, artless and poetical, and no one is spared, least of all Esther/Sylvia herself.

Plath, we know, did not want this book published in the United States (it was first released in England) for fear of how it would affect those she thinly disguised, or turned into caricatures. (She was also concerned about the book's impact on her literary reputation.) Indeed, despite the change in names and facts, it is difficult for any reader not to draw conclusions about the real mother, the real editor, the real benefactor, the real institutions of Sylvia's life, and Sylvia herself. Just as it is sometimes difficult to remember that the voice in this novel also belongs to the searing Ariel poems.

All of which reaffirmed for me these simple facts:

1. Anyone writing truthfully, even if from behind a mask, will forevermore negotiate the consequences of the act.

2. Writers possess many voices, writers are many moods, writers write well and not well, and are still writers.

3. A single book can contain the best of the writer's talent and the plaintive worst. We need to look at the whole, when we evaluate. We need to respect the difficult thing that writing finally is. I lately see too many self-styled critics out there declaiming against a hugely talented author's work as if they might, themselves, have written the book better. Just try, I think, to write the book better.


Unknown said...

My favorite scene from The Bell Jar is when Esther is in her photo shoot and she feels like she wants to cry. She can't explain why she feels this cry coming on, but it's there nonetheless. The photographer then says something along the lines of show us how happy it makes you to write a poem. In that scene, for me, holds the essence of writing.
Great post, as always Beth.

bermudaonion said...

I've heard this book is painful to read - because of the nature of the content, not the writing - but I still want to read it after reading Pain, Parties, Work. I can't help but wonder if we'd be able to save a genius like her today.

Amy said...

I really need to reread this. It was one I read for myself when I was a teenager, and lol I actually read it over a fourth of July holiday because i remember feeling so depressed and being kind of a bummer at the festivities that year. but I don't remember enough of it.

I like your final points, and I agree.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I've tended to like this book more each time I read it. It captures so many things so well: the appetite you have when you're young and not wealthy and you're presented with fancy foods; the awkwardness of being out with people who are (or successfully pretend to be) more sophisticated than you; the way it feels to be a writer and have someone belittle writing as an avocation; and so much more, of course.

While I knew the characters were not-so-loosely based on many real people, I never took those depictions to be definitive of the real people. We only see a little bit and from a single angle, and from a narrator who may be unreliable at times. But I agree that such situations can get tricky anyway; it's only human to wonder where the real/fictional line has been drawn.

Serena said...

The Bell Jar is one of my favorite reads in high school. I'm so glad that you read it. If you're interested, you should check out Pain, Parties, Work about Plath's days in NY at that magazine.

Anonymous said...

There have to be gaps. There are too many books to read in one lifetime. The gaps are where the light comes in.

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