Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has long sat on my reading list waiting for me–a well-matched reader given my feminist and literary leanings–to pull it from the shelf and crack it open–so to speak, given that I read it on my Kindle. I found it both fascinating and not at all what I expected after reading its boastful feminist reviews. It is a book about mental illness. The fact that the author happens to also be a feminist in a deeply unequal world is simply a fact of the narrative, or window dressing for feminist scholars.
I don’t mean, by declaring that The Bell Jar is not about feminism, to say that there is no feministic elements in it. To me, the novel can clearly be divided into three acts: the New York act, the Bell Jar act, and the Lifting act (in which the Bell Jar elevates and lets her go free). The New York act certainly has many feminist elements, and they are enjoyably waspish and acute. As a feminist reader I delighted in despising Marco and Buddy Willard. I enjoyed Esther’s imaginings of her future in Europe as an unmarried bohemian poet. I, along with Esther, admired Doreen’s wildness in the face of 1950s feminine propriety.
Yet the New York act is, in my opinion, simply a quick opening serving to show Esther’s mental state as she begins to slip, as the Bell Jar centers over her and begins its descent. The state of women in society annoys and mildly intrigues her, but it is not the elephant in the room–that role is taken by her sudden malaise, her inability to take opportunities presented to her, her days spent disinterestedly lying in bed or in the park. Lets not forget that when she is nearly raped by Marco she doesn’t fall into the mud kicking and screaming. The kicking and screaming is an after-thought. First she lies there with him madly ripping at her clothes, fighting the desire to do nothing and just let it all happen to her.
When the Bell Jar descends, it does so abruptly. In my first reflections on the novel, I thought this was probably its weakest point–that her mental illness comes on so suddenly and the reader, who thought they were reading a novel about a young woman struggling in society, suddenly is thrust into a novel about a young woman suffering a major depression. But the more I considered this, the more I found it to be appropriate. Plath likely wanted the reader to experience the same jolt that Esther did when suddenly she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read, couldn’t feel anything.
It is during act two that novel’s true subject breaches the surface and Plath describes it beautifully. Her writing is wonderfully modern and poetic–full of beautiful and delightful analogies and images. I am still haunted by the vision of her shoes sitting on the beach, pointing out to sea (perhaps my love of Woolf has amplified this picture), the sensation of her first shock therapy treatment, and the description of the earthy nook in the basement where she goes to attempt suicide. The picture the novel paints is crushingly realistic and sobering.
The movement of the novel into the final act is so gradual it’s hardly perceptible at first–another fact of the novel I enjoy the more I consider it. The reader is left wondering if Esther is truly cured–probably as much as Esther herself both wonders and fears. Again, scenes from this section are often painted in a feminist light. She casts away her virginity with a mere acquaintance for whom she feels nothing, and this is often touted as a way in which she’s throwing off the mantle of the patriarchy and owning her sexuality. I beg to differ. I think it is another representation of her struggle with her illness. The fact that she cares nothing for this man and that she pursues the task with the same level of interest with which someone might pick out an apple at a supermarket hints at her disconnect with the world around her–her lack of emotion. Yet still, her ability to go through with the act at all hints at her improvement. I think we finally see that the jar has lifted in her final scene with Buddy as she shovels out his car and is suddenly struck by the natural beauty of the woods blanketed in snow–another scene that sticks in my mind’s eye. Yes, we see the patriarchy again in this scene in the way Buddy casts her off easily, like a used tissue. But what we see more clearly is a young woman finally breathing air again after being trapped inside a vacuum.
The Bell Jar is a brilliant, poetic read. In moments, it is a perhaps a bit sophomoric in its pacing and its abrupt ending, a fact which only serves to heighten the tragedy of Plath’s suicide. I can only imagine the beautiful things she may have come up with had the bell jar not descended, mortally, once more.