Garrett (garote) wrote,

The Bell Jar

This is Sylvia Plath's only novel, and it arrived to the world with the noisy herald of its author's suicide, following it and then overtaking it like a wave. I was fortunate enough to begin reading it (listening to it) without any knowledge of what it contained, and I found the experience interesting on a personal level.

The protagonist - Esther - comes across at first to me as a very relatable, world-weary, angst-ridden teenager. The friends she spends time with in New York seem to have an unusually broad range of personality, and she observes subtle details in them and compares herself to them, generally finding them to be too limited in one way or another to emulate. It's obvious that the adventures they offer don't inspire her, and so, to put it in the most egregiously stereotypical way, she "doesn't fit in". She begins to collapse in upon herself instead, extrapolating from her current isolation and awkwardness to assume that every person she meets, and every place she goes, is as vacant as the places she's been.

But it's not really a collapse, or even a withdrawing. Those things imply a decline of empathy, or a dulling of the senses. Incidents continue to occur that show Esther remains highly sensitive to the world around her, and highly observant. If anything, she suffers increasingly from an inability to put up strong borders around herself. In particular, she has trouble separating the opinions of others from those of her own. They crowd into her like ghosts into a crumbling mansion.

When it all winds down into a series of suicide attempts, I was surprised at how comfortable, even natural, the progression felt. I've questioned myself several times at this: Shouldn't I find the scenario deeply repellant, or amusingly juvenile? Shouldn't it at least feel foreign?

And that's what's really interesting. Esther is no doubt a flawed - even damaged - individual... But I can easily see the ways in which her social environment conspired to magnify that damage. Fifty years of feminist evolution later, I find this book compelling not just as a story about depression in a young adult, but as a story about the poisonous - wait, let me emphasize that - the poisonous, the disgusting, the spirit-crushing, the stupefying consequences of strict gender politics.
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