“The Bell Jar,” Sylvia Plath

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This book first came into my possession years ago, during an inexplicable burst of motivation to educate myself. I wanted to be someone who had read The Classics, to be well versed in literature that transcended time and remained relevant. I bought The Bell Jar alongside 1984 and Catcher in the Rye. First, I kept them on my nightstand to encourage myself. Over time, they found their way to my dusty bookshelves. It’s only now, years later, that I’ve successfully completed any of them.

I’m glad it was this one.

What I’m doing now—blogging about books by women in order to educate myself—is a pretty much a slightly more grown-up, but just about equally pretentious version of that original compulsion. I’ll own up to that. It does, however, have its perks. One has been seeing so much of myself in the material.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented college student and writer, and her experience with depression and suicidal tendencies. The novel begins with her in NYC, growing disillusioned, in spite of her exciting, competitive editorial internship. The more she recognizes the need to motivate herself, the further she sinks. When she returns home, academic disappointment and the tedium of life in her mother’s small house only amplify her dwindling emotional wellbeing. The novel culminates in a series of stays in various mental institutions after her attempted suicide, and her efforts to regain some part of herself and to resist being snuffed out like a flame.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another was a brilliant professor… and above these figs were many figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs to choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I know I’m not to first to relate to Esther. That does not, however, diminish her importance. I’d argue that it’s the core of it. Depression is so often perceived as the absence of ambition. In reality, it is exacerbated by the overwhelming abundance of it. It is looking up at all of those figs, wanting each and every one, but being unable to choose, and feeling paralyzed by the state of indecision.

Obviously, it’s much more complicated than that, and I don’t intend to oversimplify it. Depression is a serious and devastating condition with roots deeper than its symptoms. It is, however, important to remember that many of its common symptoms are misinterpreted. In spite of the dark nature of The Bell Jar, I found Plath’s depiction of Esther to be eerily heartening. She had ambitions, a life—or many lives—she wanted to live. Until the possibility of living any of them began to feel remote, and living itself became unbearable. I found much of this novel shocking; not because it was dark, but because it was so easy to relate to. That’s a scary feeling, and one I’m sure many readers have experienced with this book.

The Bell Jar was unquestionably one of the most vulnerable reading experiences I’ve had in years. Seeing so many personal thoughts and feelings written out by a complete stranger long before I was born is unnerving and captivating in equal parts. I’m glad pretentious, 18-year-old me bought this book and left it waiting on my shelf for current me.

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