I first read The Bell Jar back in high school (let’s face it, because Rory Gilmore read it), but I don’t think I was really ready to read it at that time. I recently picked up the book again, this time buying my own beloved blue and pink copy from Bear Pond Books.
This book swallowed me like a whale and down there in the deep, dark belly, I did not want to come out. I spent most of the last three days hula-hooping on the porch or riding the stationary bike reading Miss Sylvia, oblivious to the clock running its minute hand endlessly. I won’t even tell you the number of coffee cups I let grow cold.
Unsurprisingly, I love this book! And I think this was the most perfectly timed reading of this book I could possibly have managed.
It’s true I’m a Libra who frequently has difficulty making decisions. It’s true I also have so many interests, I often want to do all the jobs at once. This is exemplified in Plath’s analogy of the fig tree, where each fig represents a different choice or path in Esther Greenwood’s life, such as a husband and children, a career as a poet, an Olympic crew champion, a prestigious professorship, a renowned magazine editor, etc. With such an array of decisions, she is afraid she will end up choosing nothing, and what a waste of good fruit that would be. She says:
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 grow black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet (77).
After next year’s graduation, I’ll find myself standing at the crux of my own forked paths, just like Esther. I, too, have many visions—many figs—of myself and my future. I, too, can see myself pursuing similar paths as Esther, although substituting tap dance for Olympic crew. However, one thing marks a stark difference. I am not a woman growing up in the 50s. I have been taught and mentored by women of the 21st century who manage to juggle all their figs in the air without dropping them, without blotting the ground with seedy pulp. Sure, these women have also mastered the art of stopping time: freezing certain figs mid-air to allow other figs to be caught first. But nevertheless, the figs remain intact. I have some great models in my life who have proved that in today’s world, a woman can sit in the tree and gorge herself not on one fig alone, but on all the figs she can reach. But first, she must make the initial climb into the tree. That’s the first step.
In her introduction to the paperback novel, Frances McCullough reveres Plath’s ability to write about mental illness in such vivid and rational prose, especially during a time where such issues were not entirely socially acceptable to talk about. While Plath led me by the hand into the world of the asylum—a world which seemed like a very sterile alien world to me—Esther’s behaviors under the gaze of doctors and psychiatrists were not completely foreign. I know well the pleasure of telling people “what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture [people have] of me by hiding this and revealing that.” I know the anxiety that comes with attempting to walk across The Bridge of Perfection. At any moment, you could fall up or down – floating stagnant in a gravity-less air or plunging into a teal and coral earth pool. Without wings, without fins, without goggles to help eyes see, falling and failing really can be terrifying. Esther Greenwood understands that terrifically, which is the real beauty of art –how we can connect so intimately with people we’ve only met through words.
Even though the book grapples with grave topics, Plath’s voice can be hilarious. Her dry humor sweeps in just when you are feeling low and creates tender moments of levity. The word “Ha!” even makes a few appearances in my green-inked marginalia. These are just a few of the reasons why The Bell Jar earned a permanent spot on my list of most favorite books.
On the topic of falling and failing and releasing perfection’s hold, I’ve found this video from Granta very inspiring. I will surely return to Mohsin Hamid’s words again and again to remind me that writing (or attempting to write) can happen in a myriad of ways, and who’s really to say that your writing process is wrong, as long as you are attempting to make progress on something.
This advice also came to me at a brilliant time, as tomorrow, I’m off to Kenyon College for a weeklong fiction workshop, led by Ghassan Abou-Zeinnedine. Photos and stories and creative tidbits will be shared here on the blog when I get back!