Wednesday, June 26, 2013
The Bell Jar
Read: 19 February to 23 February 2013
4 / 5 stars
I feel like I owe Sylvia Plath an apology. This is a book I actively avoided for years because so many people (namely female classmates who wanted to be perceived as painfully different or terminally misunderstood or on the verge of absolutely losing their teenage shit) lauded the virtues of this book and how it, like, so totally spoke to them in places they didn't even know they had ears. My own overly judgmental high-school self could not accept even the remote possibility of actual merit lurking between the covers of something that such bland, faux-distraught ninnies clung to like a life raft.
I should probably also apologize for referring to every pair of oven mitts I've ever owned as a pair of Sylvias but I think the lady scribe in question was too mired in real problems to care all that much about my sick amusement's crass reduction.
The Bell Jar, packed as it was with bleak truths, difficult topics and wryly dark humor, was not at all what I was expecting. Old biases die hard: I couldn't help but brace myself for a trivial tribute to mental imbalances, White Girl Problems and petty complaints disguised as life-ruining moments. What I got was an utter lack of histrionics and a sincere, to-the-point road map of one talented young lady's fight against her inner demons. Sylvia's alter ego Esther Greenwood (let's all take a second to appreciate the sly cleverness of trading "Sylvia" for the fictional surname "Greenwood") is so straightforward in addressing her despair that I couldn't help but extend more sympathy than I thought I could muster to her understated suffering. If nothing else, this book taught me that my own bouts of the blues are simply me being human and could be so much more debilitating: For that clarity of self-awareness alone, I am grateful.
Reading this as I neared the Infinite Jest finish line offered necessary perspective that helped me get a better idea of what it must have been like inside such a messy head. The relative ease with which IJ's depressed cast could self-medicate in secret or seek refuge where at least someone was trying to understand the extent of such gaping psychological wounds offered a jarring contrast to the way Sylvia/Esther seemed truly isolated from those who couldn't see how awful it was to live inside herself. While she encountered precious little understanding in both her personal life (Mrs. Greenwood's inability to see her daughter's problem as her daughter's problem instead of her own just rubbed my modern sensibilities the wrong way) and from the medical professionals who were tasked with helping her rise above the sinking despair she couldn't escape, I finished this fictionalized semi-autobiography 50 years after its publication with a far keener understanding of what Sylvia Plath endured than I'm comfortable with and a more sincere interest in pursuing the rest of her works than I expected.