Beautiful Books: The Bell Jar

Oh what? A young feminist read The Bell Jar and loved it? Stop the presses! Get this girl a medal! Yeah okay, I finally decided to give this novel a read. Not that I was particularly reluctant, but I feel like I’ve consumed enough baby-boomer created media to know that the 1950’s wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it really necessary to read another novel confirming that? But, of course, there’s a reason this book is a classic.

I was largely ignorant of any of the plot as I began this book, so for those who know this book only by name and feminist references here’s a little summary. The story is centered around Esther Greenwood coming to terms with her mind, her future, and her culture. We follow Esther as she slowly slides into a mental breakdown, which Sylvia Plath humanizes and rationalizes in the most eloquent way. And that’s really what I like most about this book. I found myself deeply moved by the way Plath put to words some complex and specific emotions I have felt before and have never seen formulated in such a purposeful way (i.e. the hypocritical double standards for young men, the necessity of owning your personal history, baths!). Similarly, the emotions I cannot strongly identify with, namely suicidal tendencies, I felt were represented in a way which did not alienate Esther, but brought the reader into her mind to sympathise with her motivations. I was continually reminded while reading this book why exactly it is a landmark for young women. These are timeless themes she is touching on and issues that still need to be addressed today.

What makes The Bell Jar so unique is a combination of the authorship and the narrative itself. It’s incredibly difficult, if you have any previous knowledge of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, to not read into bits of this book. I dont want to act as if I’m saying anything particularly new about Sylvia Plath’s mental state and the effects of it on her writing, I just want to point out the impact it made on my reading experience. I don’t really care to dwell on the mental or marital state of Sylvia Plath, because that’s not what The Bell Jar is about. It’s about a young girl with crazy potential who is being corralled into a lifestyle of babies, a husband, and submission all of which she doesn’t desire. It’s about a girl who is being labeled crazy because the culture she is a part of hasn’t yet caught onto the idea that a woman brings more to the table than her ability to produce children. That being said, it is partially Sylvia Plath’s story, but it’s also the story of a whole genertation of girls who had to choose between emotional fulfillment or societal acceptance.

This is a brilliant book. It was funny and important and poetic, but it was not an easy read. It is blunt and often detached in regards to suicide (though the sympathies we share with Esther impact us far beyond the impassive words themselves). There is so much history surrounding this book, so many people who identify with it. They felt like principle characters in this story along with Esther. This is a novel that represents a generations effort to make sense of their surroundings and their minds. The novel holds a lot of gravity and truth about a fight for clarity that continues today as well. It’s a timeless story that is so easy identifiable for anyone with a voice to be heard and a mind to be understood.

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