Books, The Classics Club

Book 390: The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Plath, Sylvia - The Bell JarThis is one of those books that has so much umph in the cultural milieu that it’s a wonder I’ve never read it before. I squeezed it in just in time this month to get a podcast recorded to be released at the end of the month. If you’re in the Boston area and you want to record one let me know! 😀 But, more importantly than podcasting, this book counts as the 43 book of my Classics Club journey. (See, I told you I was still chipping away). I’m so far off target it’s not even funny, but I’m glad that I’m still occasionally reading from my list.

Let’s start with the big to-do about this novel. Maybe it’s not that much of a to-do, but it felt like one. I still don’t know how much of this novel to believe is fiction. It’s very clearly labeled as fiction and yet it is very clearly Plath’s own personal story. I mean her mom wrote a letter to the American publishers saying these are real people and real stories thinly veiled as characters! There is one point where I couldn’t help but laugh because Plath writes Esther, the main character, writing a novel about a character doing the same thing. HOW META CAN YOU GET?! This is the same story being told by three different people all of whom are telling/experiencing the same story.

All of this being said, I feel that the afterword does explain it away a bit using Plath’s own words,

“She told another friend that she thought of The Bell Jar ‘as an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.’ But the new novel, about more recent events in her life, she regarded as strong, powerful and urgent.” (213)

So maybe it’s a classification problem, either way it was really difficult to fully understand because of the convoluted levels of identity of author/character.

The other thing I didn’t really get is why this novel has such a cult following. I mean I can sort-of get it because Plath did such a great job of expounding on the helplessness every post college graduate feels, but when you add in the depression and whatever other mental health issues the character (and Plath) suffered from it becomes a bit more questionable about its cult status.

All of this being said, I felt this was an excellently written and incredibly beautiful novel. As I read it, I realized I’ve read a lot about mental health in the past five years of blogging. I wondered if Girl, Interrupted and Susanna Kaysen took a page from this book, and I would love to know Kay Redfield Jamison’s, author of An Unquiet Mind, views on it too!

Plath had an excellent way of getting right to the heart of many things like being a third wheel,

“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.” (14)

or like when you finish a book and you don’t want to leave the fictional universe yet,

“I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig tree.” (45)

This is one of those books that I think will continue to grow on me the further I get away from it. I’m still torn on whether this was just an exercise of self-aggrandizement or too much naval gazing or what? As beautiful as the work was, it was still a bit too woe is me when there was so much else going on in the country and the world, but I guess that’s why it potentially being fiction is better than if it were nonfiction?

As a special treat here are some photos from when a few friends of mine, Dom, Hollie and Tara, while we were living in the UK went to visit Hebden Bridge where Plath is buried. They took wine and snacks and danced around her grave reading her poetry. Not sure who took them, but thanks to Dom and Facebook we found them again.

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Recommendation: For the beauty of the language alone I would recommend it. I’m not sure the story holds bar, you could just read a biography of her, but the way it’s written is incredibly beautiful.

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.”

Closing Line: “The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)

Additional Quotes from The Bell Jar
“Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” (2)

“I liked looking at other people in crucial situations. If there was a road accident or a street fight ora  baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I’d stop and look so hard I never forgot it. I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that’s the way I knew things were all the time.” (10-11)

“I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at a table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.” (22)

“I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” (69)

“I shut my eyes, and the music broke over me like a rainstorm. Marco’s leg slid forward against mine and my leg slid back and I seemed to be riveted to him, limb for limb, moving as he moved, without any will or knowledge of my own, and after a while I thought, ‘It doesn’t take two to dance, it only takes one,’ and I let myself blow and bend like a tree in the wind.” (87-88)

“I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.” (104-105)

“I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it would’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris of Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stweing in my own sour air.” (152)

“My mother was the worst. She never scolded me, but kept begging me, with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong. She said she was sure the doctors thought she had done something wrong because they asked her a lot of questions about my toilet training, and I had been perfectly trained at a very early age and given her no trouble whatsoever.” (166)

“As I rode back to the asylum with my box in the plain brown paper wrapper on my lap I might have been Mrs. Anybody coming back from a day in town with a Scrafft’s cake for her maiden aunt or a Filene’s Basement hat. Gradually the suspicion that Catholics had X-ray eyes diminished, and I grew easy. I had done well by my shopping privileges, I thought. I was my own woman. The next step was to find the proper sort of man.” (182)

“A fresh fall of snow blanketed the asylum grounds—not a Christmas sprinkle, but a man-high January deluge, the sort that snuffs out schools and offices and churches, and leaves, for a day or more, a pure, blank sheet in place of memo pads, date books and calendars.” (193)

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12 thoughts on “Book 390: The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath”

  1. Nice choices for the Plath excerpts. I think it has a cult following because the very observation you made about her fuzzy writings’ fuzzy relationship to fiction and autobiography. As a reader I find her openness captivating. As a writer I find her honesty courageous, even if it’s hidden beneath the guise of the fiction shelf.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and the comment/reaffirmation! I was seriously torn between the WHY in the world does everyone like this and actually enjoying it myself.

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  2. It was fascinating to read your thoughts in this and the quotes from the novel. I read this back in the days when I was a just-graduated young man – I loved it and very much bought into the cult status it enjoyed then. Yet down the years I’ve avoided re-reading it because I feared it how it might look from the perspective of a man in his early fifties instead! But the quotes remind me again how beautifully written some of it is. I’m going to a day course at a London Uni next year for a day studying the work of Carol Ann Duffy and Sylvia Plath and I’m intrigued to see what they make, if anything, of The Bell Jar. But your post was a very welcome and very timely nostalgic reminder!

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    1. Oh I hope you write about the day course and your experience of Plath’s works so many years later. The writing was incredibly beautiful and I wish she would’ve written more novels after she “got this one out of the way.”

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