Even if you haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel The Bell Jar, you’ll most likely have heard of it. It’s the female Catcher In The Rye, the angst-ridden teen fiction book that’s become almost synonymous with melancholy and suicide (see: Heathers). While there’s no denying that the novel is depressing and tackles dark subject matter, it’s a story that I find myself returning to again and again, because I wholeheartedly believe that there is positivity to be found within the sadness that surrounds Esther Greenwood.
Sylvia Plath killed herself just a month after the publication of The Bell Jar, and the events that occur to Esther Greenwood are incredibly similar to what Plath herself went through in her life, but The Bell Jar should not be read as an autobiographical novel, or even as a roman a cléf. Plath is obviously writing about something she understands deeply – a chronic sadness, a sense of worthlessness, a lack of direction – but Esther Greenwood is not Sylvia Plath. Rather, Esther is hope. She loses all sense of self, all ambition for her future. She tries to kill herself and is admitted to a hospital where she undergoes electroshock therapy, an experience that she finds wholly traumatic. And yet, her story concludes with a new beginning that conveys the message that rebirth is always possible. I do not believe that Plath is in any way advocating the suffering of Esther, nor any of her dangerous behaviors; the language used by Plath to describe Esther’s descent into depression is raw and painful, a brutally honest depiction of mental illness that is written not to glamourise, but to connect with a reader that may feel the same way. This connection is important for the novel’s end. The typical conclusion for a female-led novel is that of the marriage plot; the female protagonist is ‘rewarded’ for her hardships with a husband. Esther is prepared for her new life as though it were her wedding with “something old, something new“, but rather than being sent off to a husband, she is sent into a new life, she is – in her own words – born again, “patched, retreaded and approved for the road“. This is a refreshing and positive conclusion for Esther, but really it isn’t a conclusion at all. It’s a new beginning that holds many possibilities and acts as a hopeful reminder for anyone who may have felt as low as Esther did.
A key part of why The Bell Jar is so engaging is the way in which Plath portrays the pressures experienced by so many young adults. Esther is presented as an intelligent young woman with a multitude of opportunities before her, and this is the exact problem she faces – the options are too many to choose from. Possible the most famous extract from the novel is the fig tree passage, in which Esther imagines each of her possible lives;
“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.”
Never has a piece of writing quite so neatly surmised the paralysing effect that ambition can cause. It’s the fear that so many experience, that they could quite easily find success and happiness in any number of lives, but what if they chose the wrong one? What if the one they do chose turns out to not be as perfect as it seemed? What if you’re not actually good at any of the things you thought you were? As a young adult, the world really is your oyster, and while this appears to be appealing at first, the prospect of too many options may lead to not taking any option at all. The ambition to be everything can result in becoming nothing.
“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.”
Though Sylvia Plath’s life ended in her taking her own life (her third suicide attempt), her account of Esther’s story ends with a rebirth. I like to see this as Plath’s hope for herself and for others who knew what it was to suffer, that they may also be gifted with a second birth (or third, or forth if called for) which in turn allows a new life. And that, no matter how suffocating your own thoughts can get, no matter how bleak your future seems, you are still alive.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”