“If you expect nothing from anybody, you`re never disappointed.”
~~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar ~~
The Bell Jar was published in the UK in 1963 to middling reviews. American publishers had turned the manuscript down flat; stating that it was deficient in plot, development and structure; a short while later, Plath, living alone with her two small children in London, and apart from her husband, Ted Hughes, gassed herself.
“To the person in the bell jar, blanked and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
To Sylvia Plath, the world was like a needle stuck in the groove of a bad record; endlessly repeating it`s crap day after day in her head. The days are sunny, sweet, and smell of apple blossom; the face is upturned towards the sun, searching for warmth; but always there is the mantra inside her head, braying, I am, I am, I am. The Bell Jar is a moody, introspective vehicle in which we slowly follow it`s narrator into insanity. It contains nasty, selfish impulses as Plath struggles deliriously between trying to be a great writer and a nice person.
Her husband, Ted Hughes has always been a target for feminists who accuse him of, more or less, killing his wife. Such was the swiftness of her death, that she had died intestate, leaving him in sole control of her literary estate: something which he took full advantage of by destroying parts of her journals – to protect the children he said; but maybe there was something there he wished hidden from public scrutiny. Who knows; perhaps it`s just conspiracy theories.
” I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
The book starts off very quietly, as we follow Esther day to day, not really suspecting that she could be too fragile to cope with failure; but wham! she`s rejected by a summer writing school, and just can`t face the prospect of spending the summer holed up with her mother. Something snaps inside her head, like an elastic cord which has held her delicate sanity together; the book then careens downhill at ever increasing speed as her mind crumbles and disintegrates. It`s bleak, and heart wrenching as only a person who has been there knows it to be, as Esther wakes up in hospital after a failed suicide attempt and looks at herself in the mirror………….
“You couldn`t tell if the person in the picture was a man or a woman because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person`s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. The person`s mouth was pale brown, with a rose-coloured sore at either corner.”
On going to New York, Esther contemplates the imminent execution by electric chair of convicted spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and wonders what it would be like to be “burned alive all along your nerves.” Summertime in the Big Apple is gross, fusty, and smelling of peanuts, and each morning is like the “country- smelling freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream.” Esther`s macabre train of thought can be directly attributed to her rocky mental state, as she no longer feels the academic prizes she has spent her life accumulating have genuine worth or meaning. She wants inner peace, not accolades.
There are distinct passages in the book which are obviously autobiographical; Esther`s sojourn at a woman`s magazine for part of the summer, echo the three months Plath spent in a “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle; a magazine which regularly published short fiction and poetry by celebrated writers such as Truman Capote and Dylan Thomas. But to her shocked surprise, Esther no longer possesses the willingness to succeed in the literary rat race; she loses sight of where she is going, or what she wants to be. Plath`s rejection by summer writing school is another life episode which has been parachuted into the book: along with her emotionally mixed and bewildering experience in New York, Plath took a bottle of pills and tried to kill herself.
In her interviews with the hospital shrink, to find out whether she is fit for purpose outside the institution, Esther confesses that she hates her mother, and can`t stand the sight of her best friend Joan, who has copied Esther, and ended up in hospital as well. To be frank, Esther is an unlikeable personality, with few – if any – redeeming features; her mental frailties have screwed her down so tight that her entire personality has swivelled round 360 degrees until she`s disappearing up her own hatred of the world. Self loathing has become such a part of her personality, that she goes out and gets herself screwed by a Harvard professor she cares zero about.
Her oddball, sometime friend Joan, succeeds in topping herself, much to the disdain and disinterest of Esther, while she is preparing for a make or break interview with the hospital shrink, as to whether she has been sufficiently ” patched, retreaded, and approved for the road.” Despite this, she is aware that she is essentially the same mentally disjointed, zoned out individual as she was before she was ” analyzed.” Problems remain unsolved, and opportunities to do harm to herself, should they arise again, will be taken under consideration and prosecuted with due care and attention.
” I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be a shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people`s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.”
All Sylvia wanted to do was to walk in shadows, without care, responsibility or depth of feeling to drag her down into the true darkness that existed within her. A shadow without form or place.