Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My Bell Jar

Sometimes you read the right book at the right time. It is like all the literary forces out there have created the perfect combination and you have absolutely no control, so you just sit back and take it all in one word at a time.

I've been a bit depressed over the last couple of weeks. This isn't completely new. I've been struggling off and on with the anxiety and pressure of deciding what to do with the rest of my life for some time now, but it has gotten a bit worse recently. I also came down with a cold at the end of last week, which still lingers in my head as I write this. On Monday, I wasn't feeling that great and I was done with work (I typically work from home on Mondays), so I picked up Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I had recently purchased a copy because I had put her book on my list of 29 books to read in 2011. I've read Plath's poetry, but had never read her novel.

I was immediately taken in by Plath's language and insight. There I sat on a Monday afternoon, the last day of February, with the Florida sun coming in my windows (it's been extremely warm here in Orlando already) and I fell into the life of Esther Greenwood. The book is a quick read. It is fast paced and full of beautiful passages that really get at the heart of the human experience.

Being a lit major, I knew plenty about Plath before reading the book, and I knew the book focused on the psychiatric experience of a young woman in the 1950s. I expected to enjoy the book. I love early to mid 20th century literature and stories that focus on the mind and experience of a central character (Mrs. Dalloway is my favorite novel of all time). What I didn't expect was how connected I would feel to the central character's experience.

The book and most of Plath's work and life are often discussed in very gender specific terms. She is used as a symbol for feminism. In some ways, I was expecting the book to feel more female focused. Yes, Esther is the narrator and it is about her life and her gender is important, but for me it become secondary to other factors in the book. Esther is a English major and wants to be a poet. These are obviously two things I connect closely with. She is also facing what she wants to do with the rest of her life (granted she is 19 in the book and I am 28). There are many options, but most are exclusive. She can't do more than one of them, which creates a trapped feeling that is all too familiar. She is also bombarded by the advise of various other characters (other young girls, her mother, doctors, etc.). In some ways, it is the standard 1950s female story most of us are familiar with. It deals with that time period that women were gaining more freedoms and recognition, yet there still lingered some old ideas about what a woman should do or should want. This is a topic Mad Men handles so carefully. On the other hand, the book is about an intelligent and artistic person driven insane by the pressures of modern life (male or female).

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the divide I often feel in myself. Do I want to be a big academic or do I want to have fun and live my life in a big gay community and have some job that just pays the bills? I often feel torn between feelings in me that seem contradictory. I'm someone who puts a great deal of pressure on myself. I went directly from high school to college to graduate school and then wanted everything to fall into place. I felt I had done everything right, but I ended up with a job that goes against almost everything I believe in about education. I also feel trapped. I feel trapped by the economy, by our country's views on education, and by the city I live in that is not very arts friendly (at least not writing and publication friendly). There are no good jobs here, but I enjoy living here and have made great friends along the way. I am at a point that I need to make some big decisions and those are often overwhelming.

For me, The Bell Jar was more about the struggle to be a poet in a world that doesn't really understand you and the fears and confusions that come from that. I often feel alone and misunderstood, but also fearful and anxious about the decisions I've made or will make. I connected with many of the feelings Esther faced and the pressure that is upon us all.

This book continues to connect with readers because we continue to create a world full of the pressure to be successful, but also a world packed with options that are often overwhelming and contradictory. Currently, we push everyone to go to college and tell them this will make them successful and will make them earn more money, but what we don't say is that they might exit feeling lost and confused and not ready to face the world. I think there are a lot of 20 somethings out there feeling a little bitter and angry. Here we are with our school loan debt wanting to take on the world, but it still feels like a world that only wants a certain kind of person and that person isn't me or Esther. I have spent 20 years in school and, to be honest, I feel I deserve something for that.

I'm not saying these are all the feelings of the narrator in The Bell Jar, but her experience still rings true to many contemporary readers. Thankfully, we are less likely to send people off for shock treatments, but that doesn't change the fact that depression is near epidemic portions in this country and that a lot of people feel lost.

For me, I have discovered I have a need for goals. All of my life, I have had set goals. I've wanted to be a writer since I can remember. I made sure to get good grades and get into a good liberal arts college. Once there, I continued to write and grow and knew almost immediately that I wanted to go to grad school and get my MFA. I did. During grad school, I got good grades and wrote constantly. I left grad school and started getting published more and more, but then I fell into a life here that is good in so many ways, but feels at times like a complete failure. I know I am not old yet, but I also know that time is ticking. At the moment, I am seriously considering applying to PhD programs in creative writing for the fall of 2012. I hope this will make me happy and feel more connected to parts of me that have felt lost in the last three years. It will also give me a goal to work toward.

It felt right to read this book at this point in my life. It was a little hard to read at times and at first I questioned if it was the best thing to do psychologically, but, in the end, I think it was. Plath tapped into the core of a familiar experience. Her narrator quickly crumbles revealing just how fragile we are. We are always on the brink of total disaster. The bell jar is always closing in and we have to fight at every step. I'm lucky to have a good support system in place, but even with that some days are harder than others.

As most people know, Plath took her own life shortly after The Bell Jar was first published in London. Her suicide added to her fame and eventually made her a household name in both Europe and America. She was in her early thirties, just a few years older than me, when she did it. It is hard to say what her life would have been like had she continued to live and write, but it is fair to say she left her mark on the world. Her poems and this novel live on and continue to make people think. Perhaps her own death was necessary to make that happen. Who knows? Regardless, I'm thankful to have read her novel now, in this year, under these circumstances.

-Stephen (Jarred)


  1. Enjoyed this. And enjoyed "The Bell Jar" when I read it several years ago after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Expectations can feel crippling, and you're right: too many promises are made--often to ourselves--regarding our lives and career "paths." And then we feel like failures when all the ducks don't line up, so to speak. Feel better. Try not to be so hard on yourself. (Listen to me! All of a sudden I'm Doctor Phil!???!) Your heart will lead you to your calling. You're already amazing. Just breathe. :)

  2. Thanks Chuck! You are, as always, so very kind.