This was a re-read for me, but considering it’s been about 10 years since the last time I read it, it was almost like I was reading it for the first time. The re-read was prompted by an awesome group of bookstagram friends…we were talking about all the books mentioned in Gilmore Girls (because who doesn’t love GG??) and decided to start a “Rory Buddies” reading group. We are going to attempt to read through the list of GG book references (very slowly, because OMG the list is long). In any case, one of us was already planning to start The Bell Jar soon, and with the plethora of Plath allusions throughout the series, we figured that was as good a place as any to start. Personally, I was psyched. I remembered loving The Bell Jar the first time I read it and this second time was no different!
“I am I am I am.”
I was reading a commentary on this novel and it spoke to how, though this may not seem as impressive now, the openness of a woman writing about mental illness in a woman was, at the time that this book was first published, absolutely groundbreaking. The writer cautioned readers of The Bell Jar to keep that in mind, as they read, to really understand the greatness of this novel. Well, you can’t deny the greatness here, but I will say that I think it’s great even without that caveat. To be honest, I don’t know that I have ever read a more insightful, gritty and unself-conscious description of the descent, if you will, into mental instability.
Covering everything from the beginnings of Esther’s distorted interpretations of reality that precipitate the greater collapse to come to the unreliability of her own thoughts to self-harm to suicidal ideation and attempts to institutionalization to the isolation created by her situation to the various (both positive and harmful) responses to her “breakdown” from family, friends, and medical providers, this is a masterfully created, comprehensive picture. Even with an (at least partially) more accepting current day public view of mental illness, there are still few descriptions of the experience that match Plath in her candor and lucidity. The way she writes everything going through her mind is done in an unbelievably relatable way, either in that one can actually relate or that it’s so clearly detailed that you can, at the very least, understand and empathize. Both are incredibly important, for one allows the reader to know that, if they relate, they are not alone, while the other allows someone who has never felt that stifling or loneliness a real glimpse at what it’s like. In creating that atmosphere of either support or compassion, this novel did something amazing.
Beyond that, this is a gorgeous exploration of the accumulated stress of female expectations – marriage, motherhood, virginity – and the overwhelming mental stress of living up to expected standards therein, while simultaneously not being able to make any decisions about it for oneself without excessive judgement and having to deal with the myriad double standards set for men on those same topics. The internal and external questioning of one’s womanhood, if you do not fully conform to those standards (being too “extreme” in either direction of the norm), are tremendous, widespread, and absolutely still suffered today. This confusion over what it means to be a woman versus what one actually wants out of life is interwoven smoothly with the mental deterioration that our heroine Esther (and Plath herself) experience.
Plath’s courage in sharing this, a story of mental illness and female aspiration outside the home, both taboo topics, is phenomenal. She once referred to The Bell Jar as an “autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.” But just like Esther’s concerns at the end, her nebulous and always present fear of the possibility of another breakdown, Plath too could not fully escape from her own mind. Though unfortunately the writing and publication of this story didn’t seem to be enough to fully free her, in the end, its impact on generations following cannot be underestimated. And hopefully that legacy is somewhat of a comfort to Plath.
So. Many. Good. Quotes.
“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.”
“The same thing happened over and over: I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved close I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all. That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
“I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’”
“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.”
“The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you.”
“A heavy naughtiness pricked through my veins, irritating and attractive as the hurt of a loose tooth.”
“…I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
“He was terribly nervous the whole time, and I could tell he thought I was crazy as a loon, because I told him I believed in hell, and that certain people, like me, had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death, since they didn’t believe in life after death, and what each person believed happened to him when he died.”
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream. A bad dream. I remembered everything.”
“Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape.”
“There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded and approved for the road…”