Sylvia, Esther and The Bell Jar

I just finished reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and now I have a rabid dog feasting in the recesses of my brain as my mind whirls and churns and futilely attempts to make sense of everything and nothing. The Bell Jar is often compared to Catcher in the Rye because of its Hollywood-esque ‘coming-of-age’ theme that everyone seems to adore. I wouldn’t even know how or where to begin the comparison. I sympathised with Caulfield’s travails, but I saw myself in Esther Greenwood. She is deviously smart, and like most smart people she breezes through her classes without absorbing an inkling of knowledge. She somewhat penitently but with a smidgen of smugness admits to exploiting the system by convincing her chemistry professor Mr Manzi that she shouldn’t take the class because she would get an A anyway. It is easier than it sounds, because by virtue of my grades I got away with a lot of things I shouldn’t have.

Esther’s descent into the darkness is so logically chronicled that it feels strange that anyone should feel otherwise. It makes depression feel like the natural state of the mind, and happiness an aberration. The fact that this is a semi-autobiographical story stops me from discounting any of Esther’s thoughts as ‘this is fiction, this doesn’t happen in real life’. She goes through the quarter life crisis we all struggle with, she’s constantly asked what she wants to do next, and she doesn’t have the answers and neither do we, most of the time.

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.

The book was written in a different time, when women had to choose and there were no in-betweens. But even now, we face the same questions, the guilt and the torment. We shuttle between our wants and our needs, the precarious balance between all things wanted can never be at perfect equilibrium. You balance the scales, adding and removing, hoping that you get there before you tip over.

“When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know.
“Oh, sure you know,” the photographer said.
“She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be everything.”

I think Allison Pearson’s, “I Don’t Know How She Does It” portrays the struggle without a hint of sugarcoating.

The way I look at it, women in the City are like first-generation immigrants. You get off the boat, you keep your eyes down, work as hard as you can and do your damnest to ignore the taunts of ignorant natives who hate you because you look different and you smell different and because one day you might take their job. And you hope. You know it’s probably not going to get that much better in your own lifetime, but just the fact that you occupy the space, the fact that they had to put a Tampax dispenser in the toilet – all that makes it easier for the women who come after you….

Esther feels the same way, albeit without the pedigree of experience. Her musings on the injustice of it all, that a woman’s virginity was to be guarded like treasure but a man had no such qualms. The hypocrisy of the society she lived in rankled, until she could no longer take the weight of those expectations. She sleeps, but she cannot sleep. Words are as undecipherable as hieroglyphs. She is suffocated by the stale air, a butterfly in a jar. Freedom doesn’t always mean being free.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.

because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

She paints her suicide attempts like works of art. Simple clean lines, a razor blade is to puncture delicate skin and that is its sole purpose of existence. When she finally creeps into the cellar and swallows down a bottle of pills, I felt the terror she seemed immune to. The images in my head looked like a David Lynch movie. I once knew Sylvia Plath as a talented poet who stuck her head in the oven. She is so much more than her tragical end.

This entire diatribe has been littered with random thoughts and quotes in no particular order and with no significant meaning. But this is what lingers after reading the book, and this is what I will remember for a long time to come. In particular, these few sentences of the book are what I consider the bane of my existence.

How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?

I often wonder. How can I write about life?