Monday, March 19, 2012

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I’ve read a few testosterone-driven books in a row recently, so this is definitely an example of “now for something completely different”. I don’t think you could ever go so far as to describe Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as light relief, but in the context of a diet of Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, John Fowles’s study of violent mysogyny (The Collector) and Graham Greene’s story of another homocidal mysogynist, Pinkie Brown, a novel that quietly and beautifully portrays a woman’s emotional descent into darkness does offer a completely different perspective on life. The Bell Jar is a seriously wonderful piece of writing. The way Plath melds humour and pain is remarkable: the unfolding of Esther Greenwood’s emotional crisis is perfectly handled, and the balance of laughter and tears is superbly controlled, the former sliding inexorably into the latter, but with faint echoes remaining throughout, the tracks of hope in a landscape growing increasingly darker. I suspect it is impossible, now, to extricate the novel from the history and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath. After all, it is so autobiographical that Plath originally felt the need to publish it under a pseudonym and it didn’t appear under her own name until three years after her suicide. But it is unfortunate, really, if the novel is submerged beneath the myth of its author, because it needs no external pathos to give it power.

When we first meet Esther Greenwood, an ingenue from Boston, she is working as an intern in New York, working on a successful magazine. This is not her milieu, and while she is not exactly gauche, she is far from assimilated into New York life. We first get a hint of her dissociation from the activity around her in the novel’s famous opening line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” That the Rosenbergs’ electrocution is barely mentioned again in the novel further establishes her disconnection from reality (although, of course, this high-tech execution acts as an ominous foreshadow of Esther’s subsequent, highly traumatic electroconvulsive therapy).

Initially, though, one has little inkling of what will follow. The early passages, even the darker ones, are shot through with humour. There is a deftness and lightness to them that is, in retrospect, extraordinarily skillful. One often hears people say of those around them who attempt suicide that they had no idea, and this is the case with Esther. She appears a complicated young woman, certainly, not entirely comfortable in her skin or her surroundings, but her breakdown, which is precipitated when she returns home to provincial Massachussetts and is overlooked for a writing course on which she had set her heart, nonetheless comes as something of a surprise. And just as people will do in similar circumstances in real life, one retrospectively picks over the evidence of the past for clues of her distress and indeed they are there, submerged in the minutiae of daily life.

Esther’s decent into depression and suicidal tendencies progresses through the summer. Even now, though, there is a lightness to it that beguiles the readers, lulls them into a false sense of hope. It seems at first like depression-lite, the manufactured sort of emotions you might get in a soap opera when a major character’s flirting with the blues is scheduled to last for so many episodes, after which she will snap out of it and return to normal. Or perhaps we see Esther as a female McMurphy, the sane one in the asylum ward, and hope, like we do with McMurphy, that she will prevail against the system. But we know that McMurphy doesn’t prevail and, in The Bell Jar, we come to realise that Plath’s lightness of tone masks the growing distress in Esther’s mind, and her depression is far from superficial. She is a deeply troubled woman and, finally, we begin to seriously fear for her.

She comes to feel as though she is trapped beneath a bell jar. This is a horrifying image: trapped, suffocating, no prospect of release, everything outside, visible but not touchable, out of reach, beyond your world of confinement and gloom, a distorted vision of normality in which you cannot share. Her suicide attempts grow more serious. Her first experience of ECT is horrific. Her second, for entirely different reasons, is more so. The woman she trusts, her therapist, Dr Nolan, promises her that she will not subject her to further ECT without warning her. Dr Nolan is true to her word, but it doesn’t feel like it to the distraught Esther. This scene has a terrible emotional power: if you want to know how to write, this is a good starting point; and if you want to understand other human beings, in their distress and fear and hope and need, likewise this is a piece of emotional treasure trove. Be warned, though: Esther’s terror is contagious.

The novel grows darker yet, and then lighter. It ends on a note of hope. All the same, it ends without resolution, as befits the life of a woman in torment. After all, as we know from the life of the author of this novel, the only feasible resolution is likely to be the wrong one. But in The Bell Jar, at least, the reader can imagine, believe, hope that Esther Greenwood lives on and finds happiness.


Carl Rollyson said...

I'm so glad you discuss the humor in THE BELL JAR. Too often it is described as a dreary or depressing novel. In fact, Plath had quite a gift for satire. It is a major loss to fiction as well as to poetry that she died so young. This is what I try to show in AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SYLVIA PLATH that St. Martin's Press will publish on February 11, 2013.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for this.

Yes, when I was going through some critical comments on the novel I was struck by how humourless most of the plot summaries were.

I wonder if this is part of the problem I mentioned of people being unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between Plath and Esther, and Plath's suicide and Esther's attempt. It's as though they're almost canonising the work, able to talk about it in hushed, reverend, solemn, entirely serious tones.

That is such a shame, because it misses much of the pleasure of the book.

thanks again for commenting.