The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I should have read this book in high school, or college at the latest. There were so many parts of this story in which I recognized myself, or at least, a younger version of me on a particularly bad day. Like Esther, I wanted to write, but felt like I had nothing to write about because I hadn’t lived yet. I also felt it was a social necessity to prove my worth through being coupled, while feeling anxiety about being subsumed by a relationship, unable to achieve my own dreams because a man’s would take precendence. At nineteen, I, too, felt that the world was split between virgins and non-virgins, and this was the most important way to categorize my peers. It’s astonishing that Plath was born the same year as my grandmother, yet wrote something still so relevant to me fifty years later. I’m not sure what I would have made of this book if I’d read it while I was still in the midst of that turmoil, if it would have seemed like a ray of hope, or a nightmare, or just someone showing me I’m not the only one. Reading it now, I guess I see the book from the same perspective Plath had when she wrote it: in her late twenties, looking back on a hard time about 10 years earlier and exorcising it like a demon.
So, yeah, when I like a book all I want to do in the review is quote it at length. These first lines below are something that could have come from my journals of five to seven years ago, but I couldn’t have made this extended fig metaphor out of it:
The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was at an end.
I felt like a race horse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like a date on a tombstone.
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 offbeat 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
I remember feeling like my best years were over, though I was so incredibly young. I had gotten addicted to the routine and praise and feedback you have as a student, and letting go of those things was scary. Leaving academia was exactly like leaving my “days of glory” behind. There was a sense of vertigo because I couldn’t choose what to do next, and the possibilities seemed both endless and quickly closing in. At the same time I felt cheated that it was turning out I couldn’t do everything at once; it seemed like I’d been told once that I could eat all the figs. I remember feeling that same aversion to learning practical skills (like shorthand, or teaching) because depending on and using skills like that would be an admission of defeat, settling for becoming less than I had the potential to be.
And here’s a line that chills me to the bone from where I sit in my life right now:
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 as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.
I don’t even know how to react to that, it terrifies me so much and hits so close to home.
I can totally see why The Bell Jar made it into the feminist canon. It made the political personal in a way that was really affecting and riveting. The way Plath recognized and expressed the subtle way sexism can trap a young woman, and the effect it can have on a particularly fragile psyche–a psyche that has been made fragile by patriarchy to begin with–it was a wake-up call, a concrete demonstration of the end result of forbidding women from being fully human. At the same time, it also showed that denying women their humanity cannot truly succeed: even at her lowest, most defeated, Esther is nothing if not a full, real person. That makes The Bell Jar a vision of triumph in defeat.