Friday, October 3, 2008

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath


1971; 200 pages (216 if you include the biographical note). Genre : Autobiographical fiction. (Is that an oxymoron?) Overall Rating : A-
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Oh my. 5-squared must be influencing me more than I thought if I'm starting to read stuff by Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar was originally published in early 1963, and is Plath's only novel. It is a thinly-veiled autobiography of her summer internship at Mademoiselle Magazine in 1952, followed by her mental collapse when she returns home.
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.What's To Like...
This is a beautifully-written novel, which is a rare treat. We have lots of great story-tellers nowadays (Dan Brown, James Patterson, Steve Berry, etc.); but frankly, they're not good writers. Plath paints stunning images, even when describing mundane things. A couple examples :
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"He had a big, wide, white toothpaste-ad smile." Kewlness. Or :
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"It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction - every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller, and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour."
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The 200 pages are divided into 20 chapters, and they almost all are exactly 10 pages long. One wonders if Ms. Plath also suffered from OCD.
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So what was Sylvia Plath's problem?
Some think she was manic-depressive, but I doubt it. She had no "up" periods. Those who think she was clinically depressed are on the right track. Here's a glimpse (from page 2 of TBJ) into her world, describing her summer in NYC :
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"I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
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In the whole book, I never found Plath to "feel" anything. At one point, she remarks that she hadn't felt happy since she was nine. She supposes she'll fall in love and get married someday, but you can tell she's never going to feel "love". She enters into her first sexual encounter the same way she approaches electro-shock therapy : "Let's get this over with." Indeed, those five words might sum up her entire outlook on life.
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Sadly, although I felt like I grasped Plath's mental issues, I can't think of a solution for them. The electro-shock therapy seemed to help, but subsequent events prove this either was an illusion, or was temporary. While "playing the game" of getting well, she discusses various methods for killing oneself with her similarly-afflicted friend, Joan. And when Joan hangs herself in the woods, you still don't get the impression that Plath "feels" anything.
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To close, The Bell Jar is a fantastic read, but it is broodingly dark and sad, without an uplifting paragraph anywhere in it. It gave me a great deal of insight into the world of depression, but I still can't say I understand it, nor would I know how to talk someone who's depressed out of suicide. The world was too soon deprived on Sylvia Plath's literary excellence, and 45 years later, we still don't have any answers for her plight. In February 1963, one month after The Bell Jar was first published, Sylvia Plath turned on the gas, and stuck her head into the deepest part of her oven.
The Bell Jar
By: Sylvia Plath
Amazon Price: $16.95

16 comments:

Jason Gignac said...

Actually, she did have up periods - A) She didn't spend as much time writing about them and B) They weren't up like 'Ooh, shiny things, and candy, I'm so happy'. More up like, filled iwth irritable, restless energy. Still Manic Depressive, I can assure you.

Amanda said...

Having bipolar disorder myself, I can definitely agree that she was afflicted with the disease. Often people with bipolar disorder have shorter manic periods and long drawn-out depression periods, which is one reason why it is so hard to diagnose. The Bell Jar describes a serious depression period, but doesn't take into account any of the restless, irritable periods that Jason mentioned. I don't know if this is true, but I remember in the movie-biography-thingie about her, they had a scene where she spent all day making tons of cakes. Perhaps that was just a movie trick to get across the point, I don't know, but from the little I know about her life, it definitely seems like bipolar disorder that she had.

You even hit on one of the big points of bipolar disorder - the complete disconnect of feeling. I've been told - I don't know this for a fact, never having experienced it - that having depression DOES involve feelings. Negative ones. Whereas the depression in bipolar disorder is as often as not a lack of ability to feel.

I'm glad you liked the book - you didn't even include a 'what's not to like' section! My favorite scene is where she'd dumping out her clothes one by one on her last night in NYC.

hamilcar barca said...

my usual template didn't seem to work well for TBJ. The book is really dark, and even depressing, but that still didn't fit well into a "What's Not To Like" heading.

The one thing that frustrated me was - she doesn't really discuss what made her first contemplate suicide. in the whole NYC half of the book, she's obviously unhappy, but i don't think i read the word "suicide" at all. she gets back home, and it seems she's already given the best methodology to kill herself a lot of thought. but where did it first creep into her mind?

Jason Gignac said...

Perhaps this is just may, but I most feel like killing myself at moments in which there isn't a particularly good reason to do so. The classic movie-scene, my wife is leaving me and they're about to find out that I betrayed my father's throne moments, those moments the adrenaline will carry oyu through. It's the moments of meaningless, pointless pain that do you in. YMMV.

Amanda said...

I think that's sort of the point. It DIDN'T creep into her mind. It was just there. Suddenly. I imagine it was in the back of her mind, unacknowledged, since way before she went to NYC. Your mind does really funny things in that numb area. Logic goes out the window to be replaced with a new logic that may not make sense from the outside.

Jason Gignac said...

'zackly. Like 'Manda said. SAying 'when did you first think about suicide' is sort of like saying 'when did you first think about sex'. It's just sort of... I dunno. IT was always there. Just more or less accesssible depending on the moment.

Amanda said...

Example: a year ago, I was put on a trial medicine for three months. Over the course of those months, I began to get the classic "morbid thoughts." I didn't recognize them, nor did I recognize that I was falling into depression. It wasn't until the three months had passed that I suddenly recognized that when I heard a song that reminded me of my dad (who is still alive), instead of smiling like I usually do, I started thinking about how I could mention this song when I spoke at his funeral in the future. These thoughts, this type of thought, was ALWAYS WITH ME and I just hadn't realized it. I'd fallen into a pattern of thinking that I didn't recognize, and it slammed me when I did. I've (thankfully) never been surprised by suicidal thoughts. I hope I never do. But there's always the possibility. If you ever choose to go back through The Bell Jar, try to thread through the undercurrent of what she's saying the whole time she's in NYC, and you might catch the suicidal thoughts under the words she chooses.

hamilcar barca said...

it's still an alien thought-process for me. i can't say i've ever contemplated suicide.

when he was working for the newpaper, my son did an in-depth article on a high-school kid here who killed himself. he suffered from depression (or so the diagnosis went), and had recently stopped taking his medicine. all his friends and family thought he was making progress. then one day, he drove his pick-up out into the desert, jacked up the tire, put his neck directly under the wheel, and knocked away the jack.

after all the interviews, and all the research, Jason still couldn't explain to me what made the kid do it.

Amanda said...

Well of course, I don't know that kid's story, but it sounds very typical of a suicide from depression after a cessation of meds. Here's the facts as I know them. When someone is on their meds, they do better, and they begin to think they know how to handle themselves now, so they can get off. Or they just want to get off. In any case, they do well for awhile, and then the depression starts to seep in. People generally don't kill themselves when they are severely depressed - they don't have the energy. Most suicides occur when a person has been doing well and recognizes the symptoms of an upcoming depression. They never want to have to go through it again, so while they still have energy, they kill themselves. The incident your son wrote about seems like a fairly textbook case, though of course, again, I don't know the details.

hamilcar barca said...

you're right. it was a textbook case. which makes it all the worse, since he successfully fooled everyone around him. he did it a week or so after his GF dumped him, but everyone said they didn't think that was a factor. it was a week before Xmas, and everyone said he was in a sustained, happy, outgoing mood.

you've given me great insight into why they go off their meds. that was just one part (of many) of the kid's story that i just couldn't comprehend. why go off the meds, when you know it could kill you? it never made any sense before.

Jason Gignac said...

It's like Ms Dickinson said:

Pain -- has an Element of Blank --
It cannot recollect
When it begun -- Or if there were
A time when it was not --

It has no Future -- but itself --
Its Infinite contain
Its Past -- enlightened to perceive
New Periods -- of Pain.

In other words, in the midst of pain, everythign else - the rest of the world, the Past memories of happiness, the Ftuure hopes of improvement, all things cease. The mind is hardwired for it - the response to pain in the human mind is that it should take precedence over everything else, in order to impel the person to do something about it. So, in that moment, it doesn't matter that things can get better, it doesn't even really matter that things aren't all that bad. All that matters is pain, that doesn't go away with sleep, or medicine, or time, or anything else. There is only one sure escape from any period of pain, and when that 'Element of Blank' grows to large, it is almost a natural action.

Amanda said...

The meds thing was something I never could comprehend, either, from the perspective of someone who was medicated. I was always told to stay on, no matter what, because when you go off, bad things happen. But I was also told that people go off because they think they are better, because they feel so normal. That didn't make sense to me. I guess my thoughts were that if being on the medication made me feel better, normal, then I would attribute it to the meds and know that that feeling woudl stop if I stopped taking them. However, after being on meds for a few years, I began to realize what the trap was. It wasn't that I no longer realized that it was the meds helping me to function - I knew that. But I started thinking that the meds had taught me how to deal with the problems I had, that I now had a handle on the ways my body dealt with stress, and I could imitate that off meds. I didn't consider going off - I knew better - but I realized WHY people thought they COULD go off. Later, I had to start lowering my medication for a long set of reasons not necessary for the purposes of this discussion, and with that lowering, my body seemed to "forget" everyting I'd learned about living with my disease. it was pretty scary. So by living through the situation, I can understand those people who go off.

Amanda said...

btw, in a totally unrelated comment, I find it very sad that our culture can idolize a bad writer that is a good storyteller. Like Dan Brown. I don't mind mediocre writers who are good storytellers (like JK Rowling), but if the writing is bad enough to be distracting, it ruins the story. I don't think one can tell a good story with bad writing - the bad writing ruins the story.

Rebecca Reid said...

wow, I should read teh comments on these posts more often! Fascinating discussion.

I was just going to add that 5-squared is influencing me as well, since I've added The Bell Jar to my list.

Thanks for a great review, hamilcar barca.

Amanda said...

haha, sometimes we have interesting discussions. Sometimes we have cousinly arguments that have nothing ot do with the book...

Trixie said...

I find even the cousinly arguments interesting myself as a sometimes contributor. I'm telling myself I am going to get back into reading reviews and contributing more.
I read the Bell Jar and enjoyed it though I found it heavy and depressing. Hamilcar's review and Amanda and Jason's comments here help to illuminate its meaning for me even more.