This book has been on my “to read” list for a very long time, however, due to the nature of Plath’s work, I set myself a “no Plath until graduation rule”, which means that my collection of her poems has collected dust, and my paperback of The Bell Jar has gone unread, until this week. (I must admit the rule had to be broken as I temporarily tutored an A Level student who was studying ‘Tulips’ for her coursework essay, but that’s okay, I guess).
Reading on a train is amazing, especially when accompanied by coffee (the hashtag will be explained in a later post, once I’ve gotten through reviewing all the books I’ve been reading lately!). But the environment a book was read in does not over shadow the content of the book itself, especially when it is as beautiful as this piece is. As I go through the blog, I will share a few of the pictures I took to quote the parts of the book that the woman/ feminist in me wanted to hi five, but they won’t spoil the novel at all, and I will do my best to not reveal the ending.
Depression and Mental Health
The Bell Jar tells a story that in some ways seems to run parallel to Plath’s life, the novel is itself semi-autobiographical and was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, with names and places changed to provide a distance. Plath’s own mental health issues are perhaps the most famous aspect of her life, as ever person who studies her work will find it punctuated by her suicide.
Protagonist Esther is a scholarship student, she excels in everything, she is enormously talented, but her mental health is not brilliant. In fact, I really identified with the moment at which she started to question the point of the little things we do in life, things such as showering and changing clothes have now become trivial, and this is quite a poignant moment in the novel that informs the reader exactly where the narrator’s mental health stands, before her meeting with the psychiatrist.
There is a moment in the novel where all the women that are in New York are having their photos taken to resemble what it is they intend to be professionally, Esther, of course, wishes to write poetry, but it is not the career pathway that makes this a key moment in the novel:
Her emotional fragility is put forth through just this moment, and indeed when asked about why she looks so sorrowful, Esther can do naught but cry.
Womanhood and Feminism
Looking at what Esther does as a character in terms of being a woman, it is fascinating that she is very firm in the fact that “I will never marry”, and this made me instantly warm to her. Early in the novel she is in a hospital, and witnesses a woman giving birth. Despite being told that this is something a woman “shouldn’t watch”, Esther chooses to go ahead and watch. It is not the act of giving birth that disturbs her however, but:
The woman in labour is given a drug that makes her not remember the pain of the childbirth, as opposed to not feel any pain at all. Esther (and therefore Plath), comments here that in administering such a drug there is nothing to deter a woman from going through this all again, “she would go straight home and start another baby”. This is clearly a sign of the feminist overtones of the novel and links in with many of the Second Wave ideas that led to the reclamation of a woman’s body for pleasure and not solely for procreation.
There is a part later in the novel when she is out with a detestable chap named Marco, whom she refers to (quite rightly) as a womanhater. He seduces her, gives her a daquiri (followed by several more) without asking what she wishes to drink (I don’t care the decade, this is sexist, if you are out with a woman she can make choices about what to drink [even if Esther remarks she was grateful to have the choice removed]), and then forces her to dance. This leads Esther to remark:
I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.
The issue with Marco is that Esther feels his pull (never mind when he attempts to rape her whilst calling her a “slut” just after this dance). He stands for far too many men that exist in this world, and it is sad that over half a century later these people still exist.