The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Last night I finished this novel and watched the season finale of This Is Us. Very uplifting evening. Tonight I think I’ll just bang my head against the wall for three hours to achieve the same effect.

But in all seriousness, thank god I am mentally stable because it has been a whirlwind.

Since I am an incredibly cultured and educated individual, my previous knowledge of The Bell Jar and Sylvia Plath consisted of the one quote in Easy A where a guy asked Olive if they should read Sylvia Plath novels and she suggested they skip it and just stick their heads in an oven. My uncultured swine of a self thought that meant that the book was so terrible that sticking your head in an oven was a better alternative. Only mildly insensitive seeing as I now know that this is how Sylvia Plath eventually committed suicide.

Moving on. Overall the books I’ve read by female authors tend to be more challenging  (not sure why? I’m trying to be a staunch feminist, but part of me thinks women are trying to prove themselves or something by writing pretentiously? Would love others’ thoughts…) and with my incorrect interpretation of the Easy A scene, I expected a difficult read. I was pleasantly surprised. It was like reading someone’s diary. Succinct and very honest.

As I alluded to above, I have never faced mental illness on a personal level so I can’t truly relate to what Esther went through, however, I have certainly seen others go through similar experiences and this novel helped shed some light on that. It is often difficult for the mentally stable to understand those who are mentally unstable. It is not like I can see them with a cast or in a wheelchair. There are no visible signs of their illness. I actually saw a video about this today. It shows examples of people treating physical illness the way we treat mental illness. Here it is if you’re interested:

Discussing mental illness is still so taboo in society, even 55 years after The Bell Jar was published. Because of this, many people (myself included) have a difficult time understanding what it really means. The Bell Jar, a nearly autobiographical novel, helps to explain the intricacies of depression. Esther, the protagonist, says she has not been purely happy since she was 9 years old. Can you imagine that? Happiness is not measured by the amount of stuff you have or the amount of love in your life or the amount of people who care about you. It is different for everyone. From a bird’s-eye view, Esther has had a great life, nevertheless, she is unhappy. With some people it is easy (for lack of a better term) to understand why they are mentally ill. They were abused or neglected. Society can understand that. It adds up. But for so many people the equation doesn’t work out. My aunt, my mother’s sister, faced a similar struggle to Esther with mental illness. She was incredibly unhappy for a long time and it was difficult for many people to understand what she was going through. My mom and she had similar childhoods, but my mom has always been so happy. Seriously, so happy. (Quick story – my family played a jackbox game recently and the task was to point to the happiest person in the room and the unanimous choice among 5 people was my mom.) So what was wrong with my aunt? Why couldn’t she just be happy like her sister? If my aunt had been in a wheelchair since birth, no one would ask, “Why can’t you just walk like your sister?” Her brain was wired differently. She just couldn’t push through life with the same constant smile as my mother.

Plath writes in a way that makes mental illness more tangible. She says,

“I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley-bus. 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 in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

For those of us who have not suffered from depression, I think passages like this can make it more understandable. She knows she should be happy, but she can’t change the way she feels. I read something the other day about how many people who suffer from mental illness are very aware of their situation, but they simply cannot solve the problem. Again, very much like a physical illness.

Three more really quick thoughts since this post is getting to be much longer than anticipated.

One – a section I found very interesting is when an acquaintance of Esther arrives at the same mental institution. Plath writes, “‘What the hell is she doing here,’ I wondered. ‘There’s nothing the matter with her.'” Even someone with mental illness has a difficult time understanding others’ illnesses. In the end, Joan, her acquaintance, commits suicide. Evidently there was something mentally wrong with her. Something that even Esther could not understand.

Two – we must not try to belittle the struggle these people face. If someone walked into your office Monday morning with a cast on their leg, you wouldn’t skirt around the issue. You would ask what happened. Not that everyone needs to be aware of everyone’s mental illness, but it does not do anyone any good to pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, that only perpetuates our misunderstanding of the illnesses altogether. When Esther is about to be released from the institution she has a conversation with her mother,

“‘We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,’ she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. ‘We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.’

A bad dream. To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remembered everything.”

Really makes you think twice about the way you approach people who have suffered in similar ways.

Finally, I listened to the Overdue podcast episode on The Bell Jar on my commute this morning. (Again, highly recommend.)  They started out by discussing Sylvia Plath’s life which only further revealed how autobiographical this novel really was. One thing I found interesting was that the mental institution that she was at for a period of time, McLean psychiatric hospital, housed many other famous individuals. They mentioned James Taylor and David Foster Wallace, but I also found a list that included Ray Charles, Steven Tyler and John Nash. Just a fun fact for you.

I need an uplifting book now, open to any and all suggestions!

6 comments

  1. Excellent insight into the world of those who suffer from mental illness. You demonstrate a level of understanding, kindness and acceptance regarding mental illness that many people lack. Wonderful quotes and great advice.

    Like

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