Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker. Not only are they three women who’ve never been in my kitchen, they are also three notable female authors that I’ve never read. As a chapter in my ongoing quest to try to read many of the classics that the cool kids probably read in high school or college, I figured I’d investigate these three. First stop, Sylvia Plath.
Plath herself is regarded as a tragic heroine, having found herself in a failing marriage to another poet, with two children, in a foreign country, struggling with depression and (I think) borderline insanity at times, eventually taking her own life in 1963.
The Bell Jar is her semiautobiographical novel about a young writer who battles depression and insanity while in college. The term “the bell jar” is used by Plath in the book to describe the feeling of madness, as if a glass bell jar is constantly hovering over you, sometimes completely surrounding you and stifling you. Critical note: this reminded me of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Bauby’s absolutely spellbinding and emotionally riveting story of his life after suffering a massive stroke that left him fully functional mentally, but physically unable to move anything except one eyelid, circumstances he likened to a butterfly in a diving bell, unable to interact with the outside world. Second critical note: everyone should read Bauby’s book; if it doesn’t move you, you aren’t human.
Now that I’ve started down the path, I suppose I’ll continue to draw parallels between The Bell Jar and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The most significant common thread to me is that both books are fundamentally legitimate. Legitimate in the sense that the authors actually went through the circumstances described in their works, and so they both speak from a place that most of us have never been and will never be. So, unlike fictionalized accounts of strange events, or fantastical tellings of difficult situations, as you read these works, you know that the authors aren’t making it up. And that gives their writing so much more credibility and leads their stories to resonate with the reader so much more than they would if they were told from the third person by someone who hadn’t experienced these things.
With Bauby’s book, this is pretty easy to understand, as each of us can imagine — or more properly, can’t possibly imagine — what it would be like to be trapped in your body with no ability to move, but with full recognition of your surroundings, full use of your brain, full recall of your memories and experiences, etc. Plath’s situation is more complicated to me, because plenty of writers have written stories told from the perspective of a “crazy person”. But Plath is able to tell her story and describe the emotional rollercoaster, feelings of paranoia, and skewed perspectives of a person who is losing it from the perspective of a person who was truly losing it. And so going in to the book, you can’t help but lend a much deeper sense of meaning to what she says. It’s not a psychiatrist trying to discern what’s going on inside the mind of an unstable person — it’s an unstable person with a gift for prose describing it directly.
The story that takes place in The Bell Jar is not, in my opinion, in and of itself, a particularly ingenious tale. While the story of a young woman from the Boston area interning in NYC for a summer and then finding herself up against writer’s block when she returns home and eventually being admitted to an asylum isn’t necessarily your everyday run-of-the-mill plotline, it’s also not as clever or unique as some other masterworks. However, what you know about Plath, and the knowledge that she is really talking about herself and her own feelings pushes this to another level. In other words, if you read this in a vacuum (i.e., without knowing anything about Plath’s backstory), you’d probably give it a B, if only based on her simple but engaging style of prose. But when you know the whole story, you understand why this book has earned its place in history.