Wednesday, December 30, 2020

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. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick,..."

It's a fairly famous opening, and it has a darkly ironic suitability to the events of the novel. We see it's a loaded statement, but just how is it loaded? Now all its subtlety is gone. We find the book with the name Sylvia Plath on the cover, and we all know all about her...but in 1963 it came out under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas and while that first edition cover was a bit ominous, you simply couldn't know, not like we think we do now.

It can still surprise, though, and the big surprise for me was that it's funny. It's funny for quite a while, until it isn't, and then it's horrifying. I was expecting the horrifying. I wasn't expecting the funny.

Esther Greenwood is a poor girl from the provinces (in this case the provinces are suburban Boston--so, not all that provincial) who goes to New York. She's bright, she's accomplished, she's observant. She's one of twelve girls who've won an internship given by a fashion magazine, in Esther's case for an essay. This background allows for funny bits as she comes into contact with a richer level of society:
"That was where I saw my first fingerbowl. 
The water had a few cherry blossoms floating in it, and I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms. Mrs. Guinea never said anything, and it was only much later, when I told a debutante I knew at college about the dinner, that I learned what I had done."

There are hints of the depression that's going to descend upon her (like a 'bell jar') and cover her over, but again it's hard to read those as Plath probably meant them to be read. About her state when the depression descends, the novel is utterly convincing--and frightening. Treatment for depression is not all one could want now. It was genuinely horrifying in the 1950s.

I'm a little less certain about the transition between the one state and the other, and while Plath does foreshadow the event, it still felt very sudden. Likely this is deliberate on her part: if it could happen to the nice, normal-seeming Esther Greenwood, it could happen to anyone.

Very good and very gripping. I do think Plath is a better poet than novelist, though, since I think she's a very good poet indeed, that still leaves a lot of room for goodness here. I also don't imagine Plath would mind that characterization. 

This was one of my Back to the Classics books (for the category 20th Century Classic). I've read all twelve for the challenge, but I have two still to review. Am I going to write up two books in the next 36 hours? Probably not! Especially since I read Baldwin's Giovanni's Room a while ago now. Oh, well...

Also I recently read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye (another book I didn't write about...) but it got me wondering about entomologist fathers. Both books have an autobiographical component, and both authors (and both lead characters) have entomologist fathers. Just what is it about a dad who's gone a little buggy?


  1. i remember when the Rosenbergs were murdered... my parents were very upset about it and i and my brother were nervous as a result. the power of the state seems as arbitrary as it is unpredictable... fine review, though; it reminded me why i've never read Ms. Plath: too much truth...

    1. My earliest political memory is the '68 Democratic convention. My dad went to the Palmer House once a week for work. I remember my mom was like, do you really need to go?

  2. I (luckily) read The Bell Jar when I was still young and had no idea about Plath or her trajectory. So for me, it had a hopeful ending and I very much connected with the protagonist in her unsureness on how to act around others.

    I didn't quite finish all twelve of the challenge either. Which is fine! I do want to know, however, what you thought about Giovanni's Room.

    1. It could have been a hopeful ending--for Victoria Lucas. Ah, well. Stilly pretty good.

      I need to write about Giovanni's Room for my Classics Club list, too, but it's been two months since I read it so I'll probably need to read it again...

  3. Plath did have a way with words!

  4. It's difficult to read and keep up with reviewing, isn't it? Have I read this book? I can't remember. But it's something I'd probably pick up when I'm old and grey and have read all the classics I have on my classics list. So it was great to read your review.

    1. I've never managed to review every book I read since I started blogging. But I figure I should at least blog about the ones that count for challenges! But no.

      So, you've got about a hundred years yet to read this one, right? ;-)