My rating: 5 of 5 stars
How many times have I read this book? At least six, I think. I read it multiple times in my mid-twenties when I was on a Plath binge. Back then I related to Esther Greenwood’s absolute inability to make a decision as to which direction she wanted to take her life and her total separation from those around her. Now reading Plath in my 40s, I’m just sad. I’m sad that she wasn’t able to keep the bell jar from descending in the end; I’m sad for all the novels and poetry she was never able to write; I’m sad for the children she left behind, one who also struggled with mental illness and ended up taking his own life; and I’m sad that ultimately she was never able to find a way to merge the life of a public, intellectual writer/poet with her private desires for home, family, and motherhood. Ultimately, I think it was the constant conflict between her public and private desires coupled with her mental illness that was her undoing. And it’s just so, so sad.
It’s impossible for me to read this book as straight fiction or to separate the character Esther Greenwood from the author Sylvia Plath. She herself wrote to a friend that “she thought of The Bell Jar ‘as an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past'” (261). It’s that merging of truth and fiction that makes this novel so powerful and it’s why I can easily forgive any literary missteps–Esther hemorrhaging after losing her virginity, for example–and just give her credit for everything she was attempting to do as a young writer trying to free herself from a past that she doesn’t want defining her. And as to that overwrought, bloody virginity scene, this time around I was totally reminded of a lecture I heard Tim O’Brien give about his conflation of truth and fiction in The Things They Carried. He explains to a bunch of disappointed college students that much of The Things The Carried, is total fiction; “It’s made up.” And then he says, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” So what is the truth of that bloody virginity scene? People criticize Plath here for being totally unrealistic. Women don’t bleed a river of blood that fills their shoes after having sex, but that doesn’t matter. For the entire novel Esther/Plath sees men, sex, and motherhood as a violent act. If she succumbs to these 1950s demands for purity, everything she wants will be destroyed. Conversely, if she lives the life of a radical intellectual she will also be violently ripped away from this desire for cozy domesticity. These conflicts are ripping her in two, and I think she illustrates that violent ripping by having Esther gush dark, black blood after her first sexual encounter. Interestingly, Esther goes into that encounter with this sense of total control. She’s been fitted for a diaphragm, she picks the man, she’s rearing to go. But even with that illusory control, she still sees herself as ripped apart. She can’t escape the consequences. Sex and domesticity will obliterate her.
My absolute favorite scene in this entire novel is the heartbreaking description of the fig tree. She describes how each fig represents a possible future: famous poet, publisher, mother, intellectual, and many other possibilities that she just can’t quite make out. But here she sits paralyzed because she can’t choose which one she wants: “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” (77).
God, that sucks. And I totally get it. The irony, though, is that she was doing it. She wrote much of The Bell Jar with the support of a grant which she used to pay a nanny and her rent so she could write as a young mother. And most of the Ariel poems were written in the early morning hours while while she had two babies under two. She was doing it. And I don’t blame Hughes’ affair or the patriarchy or anything else that feminist critics lay at her grave. Plath was strong enough to overcome all of those obstacles. Mental illness is a beast and that is what ultimately what ripped her apart. She said it herself: “How did I know that someday–at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere–the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (241). And sadly for us and the family she left behind, it did.