“The Bell Jar” . . . An Apology to Sylvia

I’m terribly sorry, Sylvia Plath. Somehow in my rush to devour as much literature as I could in my years of early adulthood, I never got around to reading your first and, sadly, only novel. I somewhat sheepishly admit that I’ve just finished reading–for the first time–The Bell Jar.

(The Bell Jar was published in the U.K. in January 1963–shortly before Plath’s suicide on February 11 of that year. For several reasons, primarily due to resistance by her mother and estranged husband, Ted Hughes, the novel wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971.)

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When I started planning my “Books that Mattered” blog, I’d been assuming that I would primarily be revisiting books that I had read back in my high school and college and grad school years. Seeing how On the Road or Catch-22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest looked to me (and other members of my generation) thirty or forty years down the road. It would be a reunion of sorts.

But as happened in my actual high school reunion a few years back, I found that some of my most rewarding moments were spent with people whom I hadn’t really gotten to know back in high school. We had run in different circles, had different sets of friends, and somehow had just never connected. But when I finally got a chance to spend some time with them, I discovered that they were cool, interesting people. And I regretted that I hadn’t gotten to know them back then; that we had never given each other a chance.

This is kind of what happened with The Bell Jar. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it. Not that I actively avoided it. I just never had made the time or effort to seek it out. I guess back then it seemed like it might be too depressing, too geared to coming-of-age girls, too slight for the seriously “literary” person I fancied myself.  I just hadn’t regarded The Bell Jar as a “must read.”

In my defense, many of its contemporary reviewers had stressed the novel’s weaknesses: suggesting that while it had its merits, all in all it was an immature, apprentice-like, unpolished roman-a-clef. Even Sylvia, herself, hadn’t helped matters, dismissing the novel as a “pot boiler” and downplaying its potential importance (although I suspect this was something of a defensive mechanism to head off future criticism. She felt much more sure-footed regarding her poetry than she was about her first foray into fiction).

So, Sylvia, I am going to write more extensively about your fantastic book in my next blog.

But before I do that, I just wanted to apologize for having taken over forty years to finally make your novel’s acquaintance. For my money, The Bell Jar captures the pathos and drama and, yes, humor of young adulthood with far more intensity and honesty than that other much more popular coming-of-age novel to which it has often been compared (usually not to its advantage), The Catcher in the Rye.

The Bell Jar remains fresh, vibrant, and (to use that horribly overused term) relevant even to those of us who may have missed it the first time around. Definitely worth a first (or second or third) look.

[The Bell Jar will be given a more in-depth treatment in my next post. If you have any thoughts or memories of the book that you’d like to share, please post them in the “comments” section.]

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2 Comments

Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

2 responses to ““The Bell Jar” . . . An Apology to Sylvia

  1. Rick Sarkisian

    Hi Eric, Nice article. I read the Bell Jar so many years ago that I have no idea when it was. It might have been high school for a course, or eighth grade when I went on a spurt of independent reading. I remember it as totally enthralling at the time. Admittedly, I now remember nothing about the plot. This is relevant for me since I now teach SAT and ACT prep which require an essay. The SAT essay uses two examples supplied by the juniors. Catcher in the Rye, Scarlet Letter, and The Crucible come to mind as standard examples that students use.
    In my own reading I have recently read many of the novels of Haruki Murakami (want to read 1Q84) and Orhan Pamuk (Snow). Murakami’s work is dream-like and I think I may have gotten into it because at the time (2001 – 2008) I was in a constant state of jet lag.
    In any case, literature is important, art is important and I think we may minimize this as we age. I hope not since art opens the mind up to creativity and if we lose creativity we lose the most important part of the human experience.

  2. Thanks for commenting on my blog. If you have any other books that you’d like to see covered from your HS, college, or early adult days, please feel free to make a suggestion. I’d love to see what books other readers have in their memory banks.

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