11 December 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This was one of those books that jumped off the shelf into my hand and said: "Read me, you need to, you have to." I just knew straight away, almost without reading the blurb, that this was the book I would purchase. This sort of thing does happen to me occasionally, when you feel like it's fate that you and that book meet at that time. Indeed, when this feeling occurs, one should go with it and buy the book. It's probably very apt and, somehow, reading it is necessary for you, right now. If you believe in that sort of thing, that is.

Now, for the cynics out there (myself included), this is not some elaborate marketing ploy by the owners of The Broadway Bookshop, (who reads RRN, anyway?) I really did feel it was necessary for me to read this book. It struck many a chord and I highly recommend it.


I bought The Bell Jar without knowing what it was truly about and I was slightly unnerved when I realised how much more there is to it than the average coming-of-age story. If we are to talk in the traditional sense of beginning, middle and end, I must say that the beginning was exciting, the middle oppressive and the end a relief. This, however, is far too simplistic an explanation so I will, as always!, elaborate.

The Bell Jar is set in America. I'm assuming in the 1950's. It is written in first person and the main character's name is Esther Greenwood. Esther is nineteen at the beginning and passes her twentieth birthday on Plath's pages. Esther is studying to be an English Major. She comes from Boston but the story begins in New York where she's apprenticed to the editor of a fashion magazine. The beginning is an array of social events, anecdotes, stories from Esther's past, memories, encounters and self-questioning. Esther longs to experience the exciting, famous, glamorous, dangerous New York but feels for some reason she is unable to. Though she can't work out why. Perhaps she feels trapped by the endless social engagements arranged for the apprentices, but one begins to sense there is more to it than this. In hindsight: the bell jar is lowering.

Esther returns to Boston for the summer because she misses out on a place in a writing course at Harvard - she had "never spent a summer in the suburbs before" and Plath's metaphor at this point is an apt warning as to the direction this book will take:
"All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap."

At this point, I would say the "middle" section has well and truly commenced. Plath masterfully portrays Esther's steady demise from here into a sleeping-pill dependency, being referred to a psychiatrist, electric-shock treatment, suicide attempts and eventually (and ironically given her precocious ability to get herself funded all through school and college) a scholarship to a private asylum after she nearly overdoses on sleeping pills. The bell jar is firmly lowered and doesn't look like rising any time soon.

Gruesome stuff, I know, and hardly what I expected. I had never read anything like this before and felt slightly unsettled by it. However, I felt I must plough on, find out what happens to Esther and attain literature's essential ingredient: closure. It was well worth this oppressive section for the overall experience of the novel and, indeed, the novel would be nothing without it.

The "end" section is a point when we can breathe again as Plath slowly reveals to us that Esther is getting better (the bell jar is slowly rising). We can feel the language become more - for want of a better word - sane. And we lose the impression (which was prevalent in the middle section) that what we are reading may not really be happening except in Esther's head. Despite this eased-in relief, I wasn't certain she was going to be OK until the last sentence. And, even then, we never discover what happens to her. This is both highly frustrating and impossibly beautiful. I would like to know that Esther is OK, that she becomes highly successful and happy, but I believe that the book is a stronger work without these reassurances. It truly is, as Joyce Carol Oates says, "a near-perfect work of art."

I couldn't agree more.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh you're book review sounds so good that I must get this book in somehow.

Hey I was wondering, how old are you?

19 December, 2007 18:36  

Post a Comment

<< Home

\\Newer posts// \\Older posts//