Friday, 7 August 2009

The Bell Jar


"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York". Such an opening line! It was a queer, sultry summer, ten years ago that I first discovered Sylvia Plath, the summer before I began University. Back then I didn't know who the Rosenbergs were, I didn't know who Sylvia Plath was, but it was enough to know that she had killed herself by putting her head in an oven to court my interest. As an angsty eighteen year old whose own pain made her self-involved, I loved controversy and Sylvia Plath with her tragic suicide and appropriation of the Holocaust to evoke her pain, was right up my street. That summer I read her poetry and then during the year I read The Bell Jar around the same time that I first read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Melodramatic much?

Re-reading it a decade later for the Savidge Reads Book Group I had more of a perspective. Where the first experience of it spoke to my tortured, intense, and angst-filled self, the revisit allowed me to appreciate the beautiful prose and the humour that pervades the novel that is inaccurately thought of as depressing. The Bell Jar is dark, of course it is: it deals with the themes of depression and attempted suicide (the first of its kind) but amidst some comedic instances. Plath/Esther Greenwood is exceptionally observant and witty; her observations and insight into her thoughts and thought processes are highly amusing; Esther gives voice to bizarre thoughts, the type of which we wouldn't admit to anyone. I appreciated the stripped-back exposure of Esther, naked and wounded. The ones at book group who were re-reading the book agreed that it should be compulsory for adults who had read The Bell Jar in their youth to re-read it again in adulthood. It resonated with me in my angst-ridden days and it resonated with me again -in a different way- as a more mature, less naïve adult; having been in the bell jar -that confined, claustrophobic, introspective place- between now and then, I appreciate it more and am less inclined to think that it "speaks to" my poor, immature, tortured soul. Yes, I am being self-deprecating but I recognised its black humour during this re-read and perceived that it is not all darkness and tragedy. In many ways I identified more with Esther this time around than I ever did, or thought I did.

These are more my thoughts and impressions outwith a normal book review but I have a lot of thoughts and impressions about this book! I suspect that most posts made after book group will be random observations about the book as I ponder it after discussion, rather than a cohesive account.

To lighten what can often be a light book anyway, I would like to share a favourite quote from a favourite show, Gilmore Girls:

"Hey, did anybody ever think maybe Sylvia Plath wasn't crazy, she was just cold?" Lorelai Gilmore

Often, when I feel cold, I love to take a bath.

"There must be quite a few things a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them. Whenever I'm sad I'm going to die, or so nervous I can't sleep, or in love with somebody I won't be seeing for a week, I slump down so far and then I say: 'I'll go take a hot bath.'" (page 18)

22 comments:

verity said...

Hmmm...I must re-read this with an adutlt persepective. I wonder how many people at your book group had read it at an angsty age and were then re-reading it?

Paperback Reader said...

I'd be curious what you thought second time around, Verity.

Of the eight of us there last night, three of us had read first read it at an angsty age. I think it's what struck me most: how differently a book can impress upon you rereading it at a different stage in your life.

claire said...

I also find that's true with other books I've read while young and have reread again as an adult. Experience really makes much difference, doesn't it?

I haven't read The Bell Jar, and only because I was afraid of too much sadness then. Now I feel I'm detached enough from my young, angsty self that I can handle it. (Also, I can't stay away from that gorgeous cover.)

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, experience definitely makes the difference. The worry with rereading (especially children's lit) is that you don't love it as much as you did; however, with The Bell Jar I still really enjoyed it but in a very different way. Perspective and experience make all the difference.

I think you could easily read it for the first time without feeling too sad. The cover is beautiful and the edition is well-published - it feels good in the hands!

farmlanebooks said...

I nearly quoted the bath scene too! I love the quote about her just being cold!

I didn't find the book at all depressing, and actually found it quite funny. It wasn't at all how I thought it would be and thought it was a great choice for a book club.

Paperback Reader said...

The bath quote amuses me and the cold quote is one of my all-time favourites.

It was a great choice and it generated a lot of discussion. For the most part we all agreed and liked it but yet we still had things to talk about. It was far funnier this time around and I didn't find it at all depressing either.

kimbofo said...

Great review, Claire. Wish I'd been there last night, because your experience re-reading this is exactly how I felt. I read it when I was an anxiety-ridden, depressed, poor graduate with no career prospects back in 1991. Reading it again almost 18 years later (!!!), I thought it was actually quite a humorous book and a little bit moanie in places. I wanted Esther to snap out of it!

Paperback Reader said...

Kim, we missed you and started off with your thoughts. I'm amazed by how much difference has been made by time and perspective between reads; it makes me feel wiser! Esther's depression seemed less dark than it did then and I felt that she was responsible for her situation and self-destructive in places.

savidgereads said...

Great review Claire and what a lovely lovely night. I think the bath quote is brilliant, though havent used it as would be plagurising you hahaha.

Paperback Reader said...

It was a great night - thanks for choosing such a great book!

The bath quote is definitely my favourite from the novel and one I noted down immediately. There are few things that a hot bath and a good book won't make better.

Green Road said...

I too read this book in my angst-filled teenage years and I felt so connected to it then .At the time I had no idea that Sylvia Plath had killed herself, I only found that out years later in my mid-twenties (head in the sand, I know, I know) and I remember being shocked. I worry about re-reading it in case it doesn't resonate with me now as it did then. Your review has given me the motivation...I still don't know if I'll do it though.

The bath quote is one of my favourites. In my teens I had memorised whole chunks of the book. Sadly I no longer remember anything.

Paperback Reader said...

Swati, I'm stunned that it still resonated but in a completely different way. I think that re-reading this now was a semi-profound experience as it showed me my own personal growth. I can appreciate your trepidation though - I am always wary of re-reading loved books in case I now hate them!

Carl V. said...

I agree, a hot bath is a great cure all, especially on those chilly autumn nights or cold winter nights. A bath is just the thing!!!

Paperback Reader said...

It is indeed, Carl! It's also very much a seasonal thing and something I look forward to indulging in more as the darker months approach - baths, soup, and scary reads!

JoAnn said...

I love how age and experience give a different perspective on literature! This is one I did not read in my 'angsty phase', but definitely need to read now. The bath quote is the best!!

Darlene said...

That's a soul-bearing review, not to mention fantastic! I'm in the group of people that have steered clear for fear of sadness but your review has left me pleasantly intrigued. I even had a chuckle just now thinking of when I'm in the stacks at the library I can feel myself physically avoiding certain books that evoke such feelings. When I read Mrs Woolf & the Servants and knew that Virginia was nearing the age when she would kill herself, I wanted to reach through time and stop her. Do you feel that way reading Plath?

Paperback Reader said...

JoAnn, I'd love to hear your thoughts when you do read it! The bath quote is one that I am going to try and remember because it's just so true!

Darlene, thank you! I kept a little of my soul back... it resonates with me in a variety of ways and it was enriching and even enlightening to re-read it.

I honestly don't know how to answer your question and it's one that will stay with me. I found it difficult to separate the autobiographical from the fiction knowing what I knew of Plath but at the same time I felt that Esther wasn't Plath and was detached. The pain in her poetry is better evoked.

I wondered whilst reading if creative people are more predisposed to depression/suicide, whether it is something to do with the right side of the brain. It is a sobering thought.

Green Road said...

Didn't her son kill himself too? And I seem to remember her daughter coming out a few years ago to talk about her struggle with depression. There may well be a connection between creativity and suicidal tendencies, but I can't help thinking the Plath/Hughes family were suffering from a lot of demons in their life.

Paperback Reader said...

Swati, yes her son committed suicide earlier this year; I think the family history is tragic.

Novel Insights said...

Really enjoyed your review and hearing all your thoughts yest.

Tony said...

Hmm, not sure I'll ever bring myself to read this unless I take up some kind of 'Suicide Challenge' (of the literary kind, I hasten to add!). Then again, I avoided Virginia Woolf for ages and loved 'To the Lighthouse' and 'Mrs. Dalloway' when I finally got around to reading them, so you neve know...

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Polly; it was an enjoyable night.

Tony, I love Virginia Woolf. A suicide challenge (of the literary kind) actually sounds really good.