Writer’s Wednesday: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
As on my previous blog, I’d like to have an (almost)-weekly feature “Writer’s Wednesday”, where I’ll review either an older favourite book of mine, or a new recent-read. In the past I have also reviewed books I didn’t enjoy as much, but I’ve decided I don’t want to give space to “lesser” books here. If you want to follow everything I read and review, you can check out my Goodread’s profile, please feel free to add me as a friend. Especially in the beginning I’ll be re-posting edited versions of reviews previously published on my old blog. I will however only be sharing some select favourites, that are always worth a revisit.
One and a half year ago I finished reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for the first time – and I wish I had read it ages ago! It is the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman just starting out in life. The novel probably takes place in the late 50’s/early 60’s (published in 1963). We follow Esther through a psychological breakdown as she is completely overwhelmed by all of her options, choices, possible future scenarios, her thoughts and her emotions.
Even though The Bell Jar was written in the early 60’s, it is still incredibly relevant today. Although the stigma associated with a woman’s “lack of purity” isn’t the same, it still exists for any woman who is deemed promiscuous – and there’s still a huge double standard between men and women.
Esther’s struggle with her many options in life is something I can really relate to. Below I share a quote, where she describes how she feels as if her many choices have paralyzed her – and this paralysis, means she’s unable to choose anything at all. So often I have felt this way, it is part of the reason it took me so long to start blogging under my own name.
In my opinion, The Bell Jar is incredibly well-written, powerful and poignant and just as relevant today as when it was published. I greatly recommend it.
“The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.”
“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 fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more 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 I would 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.”
“This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other men and they would end up making her life miserable.
The woman finished her article by saying better be safe than sorry and besides, there were no sure way of not getting stuck with a baby and then you’d really be in a pickle.
Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.
It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way Buddy Willard had? I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.
Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well.”
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
“And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard’s kitchen mat.”
“‘Neurotic, ha!’ I let out a scornful laugh. ‘If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.'”
“At the foot of the stone I arranged the rainy armful of azaleas I had picked from a bush at the gateway of the graveyard. Then my legs folded under me, and I sat down in the sopping grass. I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard.
Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death.
My mother hadn’t cried either. She had just smiled and said what a merciful thing it was for him he had died, because if he had lived he would have been crippled and an invalid for life and he couldn’t have stood that, he would rather have died than had that happen.
I laid my face to the smooth face of the marble and howled my loss into the cold salt rain.”
“I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: ‘I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless…'”
“‘We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,’ she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. ‘We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.’
A bad dream.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.”
Have you read The Bell Jar? If yes, what did you think of it? If no, do you plan to?
Any suggestions for other great feminist literature?