Re-reading a Classic a Decade Later: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Posted By Austyn | 9 comments


I love to read, and growing up I read any book I could get my hands on, which resulted in my first reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in 7th grade. I have no idea how I found the book, or why I felt compelled to read it, but I could not put this book down. I got in trouble several nights for reading past my bedtime (curse you flashlight for giving me away!).

I also had to have a talk with my teacher, probably because I submitted a book report on The Bell Jar that included a drawing of a woman next to a bell jar, surrounded by drinks and razor blades. She was concerned, to say the least. But she let me submit it, and I got a good grade because I was awesome at middle school. I also recently found said drawing in a box of my old school stuff, and made the effort to share it with y’all here:

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Wow I was really bad at drawing people, but I digress.

Plath wrote like no other author I had ever read. Even though I had never met anyone like her, the books protagonist Esther Greenwood was incredibly real to me, probably because this book is considered semi-autobiographical about Plath herself. It details Esther’s breakdown and the treatments administered at the time (shock therapy for Esther and a lobotomy for a fellow patient), how she deals with people around her, her suicide attempts, and the isolation felt by sufferers of depression:

to the person in The Bell Jar, black and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.

Now, over 15 years later, I just finished reading The Bell Jar for the second time. As a woman who is approaching thirty sooner rather than later, I have some life experience, and I wanted to see how I related with Esther now, and if I found Plath’s writing as incredible as before. I have considered this book as hugely influential in my life, and wondered if I would still feel that way.

Initially, I found myself less sympathetic to Esther than over a decade ago. But as the book continued, I empathized with her more and more, and I had moments of revelation where Plath put into words things I have felt in my life: How Esther had excelled at school and then didn’t know what to do with her life after seemed to mirror graduating into an economic recession with a BA in a major I had lost interest in.

However, the part of the book that hit home hardest was Plath’s fig tree analogy, which viewers of Master of None may be familiar with:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Every human I know has faced this feeling. Once at a women’s leadership convention in DC I heard women leaders talk about how they DID have it all, families and careers… but then they went into detail on how 5 nights a week they lived away from their families, and sometimes they turned down promotions to keep with their families. I got back and felt completely discouraged. I wanted it all with no concessions. If these brilliant women couldn’t live the life I wanted, how could I possibly expect to?

Reading The Bell Jar for the second time, parts of it resonate more strongly than ever with me, and it’s a relief to know that at least someone out there has felt the way I feel about being overwhelmed with possibilities and not knowing what to do.

Side note: A lot of people dislike Plath because they see her as glamorizing suicide or something of that sort. I recently read (online, and I haven’t researched further, so let me know if this is wrong) that at the time of Plath’s death, she knew she was in a bad place. She sent her kids to stay with relatives, and her doctor was trying to get her admitted to a hospital, but there were no empty beds. This was a woman who was trying to do the right thing, but the system failed her, and she took a drastic way out.

 

9 Comments

  1. This post may convince me to re-read The Bell Jar, and I don’t normally re-read books. Thanks, Austyn.

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    • Re-reading can be a double edged sword! It can be amazing, or it can taint a pretty awesome memory. Just be careful!

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      • The problem is I read this in high school, over 40 years ago. I really have almost no memory of the content of the book. Only a feeling that I get when the book is mentioned. Maybe rereading would alter that feeling but that might of be a bad thing.

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  2. Austyn, I’ve always LOVED The Bell Jar. One of my favorite books ever and, like you, I haven’t read it in a LONG time (probably since high school). But it’s the book that goes with me everywhere. It found it’s way to my sorority house in college and then through multiple moves to new apartments and now, finally, to my own house… where it will be kept in my nightstand, as usual. You’ve compelled me to re-read it!
    I have always loved the fig tree portion, partially because Old & Cranky (for those of you who went to Richland High School in WA) forced us to draw fig trees with all of our different branches that we could take in life. It was kind of out of character for Old & Cranky but I loved the project. And I’m sure I wrote things like “family,” “children,” “serve others,” “work,” etc. but I never grasped the concept of not being able to have it all until reading it just now.
    People say that you can have a family and work or work and travel or any other two items that really aren’t compatible. It’s so very hard to “have it all” and impossible to not make concessions to one or the other, or both.

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  3. I read this in college, during an admittedly horrible depressive episode. At the time, I was astounded (and even then somewhat disturbed) at how similar I felt to parts of this book. When trying to explain my depression to my roommate, I gave her the book and said “This is how I feel.” What’s strange to me now is that I barely remember any details of the story, or that period of my life. Weird how the mind works, huh? By the way, I never got my copy back, which may be a good thing. 🙂

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    • That’s actually part of why I’ve been hesitant to read this as an adult. There’s a little something scary in how familiar it can feel…

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      • Right?? I definitely appreciate it as a good piece of literature, but I don’t think I want to dredge up any feelings associated with it. Although I still want my copy back. I won’t name which of our former roomies stole it, but it wasn’t the only book I never got back! #downwithbookthieves
        P.S. Austyn I forgot to mention how fantastic that drawing is. Very good work, middle school-you!

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  4. That is a fantastic childhood drawing you’ve unearthed, haha. I can see why a teacher might be a tad concerned.

    I read The Bell Jar back in high school, but have no memory of it apart from being generally impressed. I should plan a re-read of it too!

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  5. I have always been eyeing this on the bookstore but the paperback is very much expensive. So, I’m waiting to have an extra so I could have this and read it. Lovely post. You inspire me more. 🙂

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