If you know anything at all about Sylvia Plath, then I guess you'll know basically two things about her: depression and suicide. Both of these do come into prominence in this novel, but, even in a book about a woman's breakdown and suicide attempt, these aren't the things that strike me as most important about the novel. It is intriguing to me that I feel this way, because when I first read this when I was about 15, full of teenage angst, these did strike me as the most important things, and made me wonder if I was also on a slippery slope down into depression (I really wasn't- these feelings faded about five minutes after I finished the book!) This time around, I was struck more by the things that lead up to her eventual breakdown- pushing herself too hard, trying to achieve too much, and then suddenly stalling and not being able to get started again. In a sense, she wants to do and be everything, and it is this that is her downfall- on being unable to decide on any one path, seeing only the things that will be closed off to her if she does, she finds herself stalled, back with her mother, and unable to think of doing anything at all.
I should probably stop myself here before I give anything away. But I definitely think that the way I read it this time is indicative of where I'm at in my life (not long finished intensive learning, don't really know what to do next, back at home with my mother...) and trying to avoid falling into a similar kind of funk to Esther, the protagonist. I have not been entirely successful in this, and I definitely am feeling a loss of direction that often leads to despair right now. So I guess you could say that I felt closer to this book than ever before on this reading, because, unlike my 15 year old self, I do know, at least to a certain extent, what Esther is going through.
But, enough about me. Let's get to the writing. It is deceptively simple, but also, I think expresses universal feelings. This is apparent in how many people I have known and blog posts I have read that feel like they can really relate to the novel, and I'm sure hardly any of them have experienced actual depression. While taken to extremes, Plath manages to express wholly universal feelings- the yearning to be the very best we can, the boredom of living in the suburbs, the desire to just change entirely who you are and to just do something better with your life. More than anything, Esther is one of the most real characters that I have had the opportunity to spend time with. You are there with her through every state of mind, and through her complete and consuming depression. Perhaps the best thing about her though, is that she isn't perfect- she can be petty and a little bit harsh on those who don't come up to her standards, but that just serves to make her more real, and a character who really haunts you long after you've finished reading.
THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
One of the most bittersweet moments of the novel, and one that sort of haunts me, is the fact that Esther, following her recovery, is never really allowed to completely relax, because:
"How did I know that someday-at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere- the bell jar with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"This is a sort of disturbing thought, and it is an upsetting one too when you consider Plath's own suicide at such a young age. It must be so frightening, living with essentially the worst experience in your life (and, in a way, experience of your life) on your back all the time- out of the bell jar, but with it barely behind you at all times, a part of your mind always wondering if and when it might descend again. It's a horrifying thing to have to worry about, and, as Plath says, you still always remember the way you felt whilst in the bell jar, and so the thought of it coming back is an almost unbearable one. Fortunately, aside from this, the novel does end on a relatively positive note, and makes me hopeful to think that Esther is still fine, living the life that Plath herself deserved to have.
The Bell Jar is still stunning to me, even after reading it so many times. It is a work of art, and almost makes me uncomfortable to enjoy, in considering that another person's complete debilitating pain led to its creation. Nonetheless, it is still a book that I feel everyone should read, depressed or not, female or not, for its complete and utter painful beauty.
I do believe that the subtlety of her style makes too many new readers miss the poignancy. It's a book that requires a sinking into.