I’ve just finished reading, for the first time, Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel.
To those of us who have been familiar with Plath’s work primarily through her poetry, The Bell Jar (1963, U.K.; 1971, U.S.) comes as something of a revelation.
I was expecting the kind of searing, too-hot-to-touch intensity that is the hallmark of Plath’s poetry. Her posthumous collection, Ariel (1965)–with such poems as “Daddy” and “Death & Co.”–is still almost too painful to bear: raw, seemingly unfiltered cries of anguish from a young woman and mother who would soon be dead by her own hand.
But The Bell Jar is something else again. Yes, there is the pain and anger and intensity that you would expect from Plath. But there is also humor and pathos and a sense of innocence and even (if I may use this word) a girlishness that is rarely evident in the poetry.
It’s as if the poems had been processed through a blast furnace, so that all of Plath’s agony and fury have been distilled to their essence. In the novel, Plath seems to be allowing herself to cool down a bit. The heat and intensity are still there, but a blast furnace it is not.
I think it’s no mystery why Plath decided to publish the novel only in the U.K. and under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. Apart from not wanting to offend her friends and family (the novel is very thinly disguised autobiography), it represents a stark departure from her poetry. Off-handedly dismissing it as a “potboiler,” Plath seemed unsure of the novel’s ultimate literary value.
While Plath’s ambivalence about the novel is understandable, she may have short-changed herself. As someone coming to The Bell Jar totally fresh, the book strikes me as sure-footed, powerful, a genuine achievement. Yes, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic coming-of-age first novel: written in the first person by a young writer about an even younger person; heavily autobiographical; not a showcase of formal elegance or innovative narrative technique.
But (and it’s a big “but”) the novel transcends these apparent limitations. It manages to convey in a wonderfully wry, straightforward style the experiences and challenges of being a smart, ambitious young woman coming of age in early 1950s America. (McCarthyism and conformity are in the air: the novels’ first sentence references the controversial Rosenbergs execution.).
The book is full of surprises.
The first surprise is the normality and charming naiveté of the young protagonist, Esther Greenwood. We meet nineteen-year old Esther in the summer between her junior and senior year of college. Esther has won a prestigious guest editorship at Ladies Day magazine (in Plath’s case, Mademoiselle) and is spending an all-expenses paid month in New York City.
“I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” says Esther, who is feeling like an outsider among the other contest winners. Esther (like Plath) comes from a poor family and is enrolled in a brand name college (in real life, Smith) only because she has managed to win a scholarship. Like Plath, Esther is a fierce over-achiever: because of her straightened financial circumstances, she feels compelled to keep getting straight A’s, keep winning awards, keep fighting for glittering prizes.
The other eleven girls who have won the guest editorship apparently feel no such pressure:
These girls looked awfully bored to me. I saw them on the sunroof, yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans, and they seemed bored as hell. I talked with one of them, and she was bored with yachts and bored with flying around in airplanes and bored with skiing in Switzerland at Christmas and bored with the men in Brazil.
Girls like that make me sick. I’m so jealous I can’t speak. Nineteen years, and I haven’t been out of New England except for this trip to New York. It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water.
Because of her modest upbringing, Esther charmingly reveals her insecurities about navigating the sophisticated, adult world: what drink to order, how much to tip the bellhop, how to deal with cab drivers.
One of the book’s funniest moments occurs when Esther recalls having a dinner with Mrs. Guinea, her wealthy benefactress:
Mrs. Guinea answered my letter and invited me to lunch at her home. 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.
Esther is wonderfully unguarded about her lack of experience and her various social faux pas. These are embarrassing moments, but not so embarrassing that she is unwilling to tell us about them. And this attitude of straightforwardness, honesty, and lack of guile are evident throughout the novel, even when it comes to larger, more significant issues.
Sex, for one.
Indeed, one of the other major surprises for me is how honest, almost reportorial Esther is about her sexual experiences and her attitudes toward sex in general. One of the creepy/funny/sad moments in the novel occurs with her boyfriend Buddy:
Suddenly, after I finished a poem, he said, “Esther, have you ever seen a man?”
The way he said it I knew he didn’t mean a regular man or a man in general, I knew he meant a man naked.
“No,” I said. “Only statues.”
“Well, don’t you think you would like to see me?”
Esther (who remains a virgin until near the end of the novel) struggles with this a bit, but considering Buddy’s “fine, clean” reputation answers, “Well, all right, I guess so.” Her reaction when Buddy, after some fiddling with his clothes, finally exposes himself is priceless: “Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” Buddy would very much like to see Esther naked too, but she’s had enough, “‘Oh, some other time,’ I said.”
Unfortunately, not all of Esther’s sexual encounters are so benign. Almost exactly halfway through the novel she goes on a blind date with a Peruvian man named Marco. The date ends with her near rape. The attack is unexpected, brutal, nasty. She just manages to punch Marco in the nose after he has knocked her to the ground and is forcing himself on her; nursing his bloody nose, he finally backs off.
Today we would call this “date rape” and a woman would have some resources to turn to. But back then, the thought of reporting Marco to the authorities never seems to cross Esther’s (or Plath’s) mind. The realities of that era were that “date rape” (we are several decades before that term would even be coined) was more or less the status quo, and this incident would have undoubtedly been placed in the “boys will be boys” file.
(The attempted rape marks the end of Esther’s stay in New York and divides the novel neatly in half. The second half finds her back in Massachusetts and records her downward slide into depression, mental illness, and a suicide attempt.)
Plath’s treatment of Esther’s budding sexuality and her decision to lose her virginity is astonishingly unsentimental and dispassionate.
. . . my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it.
After Esther decides to lose her virginity, she does so with almost clinical calculation. She picks up Irwin, a young Harvard professor, outside of the Widener Library and allows him to seduce her:
I felt the first man I slept with must be intelligent, so I would respect him. Irwin was a full professor at twenty-six and had the pale, hairless skin of a boy genius. I also needed someone quite experienced to make up for my lack of it . . . Then, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t know and wouldn’t go on knowing–a kind of impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites.
There is something admirable and incredibly brave and also, of course, incredibly sad about Esther’s campaign to lose her virginity. (After sleeping with Irwin, she begins to badly hemorrhage and nearly dies on her way to the hospital.)
The major surprise of reading this novel written a half-century ago (and which is set even longer ago than that–60 years) is how astonishingly contemporary it feels. Unlike, say The Catcher in the Rye, which to my ears sounds very dated and of its time, there is little in The Bell Jar that would not ring true for today’s reader.
Perhaps it is Esther’s fierce honesty. Perhaps it is her determination to fight the prevailing notions about women and their proper place in the world. Perhaps it is Esther, herself, who so yearns to discover her true self, to find her proper place in the world, to lead an authentic life . . . This is all timeless stuff.
The novel is chock-full of what would become standard feminist themes and issues. For instance, Esther’s mother continually urges her to learn shorthand, a career she can “fall back on” when her chosen career aspirations are inevitably crushed. Here is Esther’s response:
My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.
The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.
And Esther’s reservations about marriage decidedly anticipate what many millions of women would be thinking and feeling in the decades to come. She imagines what life would be like as a wife:
It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.
This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s . . .
And later on, Esther recalls what her boyfriend had said to her about marriage and children:
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.
I flash to an image of Sylvia’s final desperate moments, alone in her freezing kitchen as she knelt down in front of the oven, having sealed shut the door to her small children’s room and left their window wide open, so that the deadly gas would do its deadly business only on her.
I highly recommend The Bell Jar to those who haven’t yet read it. To those who have, do yourself a favor, go read it again.