Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reading group: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This book was my suggestion, a book I had loved when I read it some years ago. It’s poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published originally under a pseudonym and confessedly and verifiably autobiographical.

It opens during the fifties summer that the Rosenbergs are executed for spying and first-person narrator Esther Greenwood, an A-grade literature student, is working out an expenses-paid job on a New York fashion magazine, the prize she has won, along with several other aspirant young women, with her writing. Acutely aware of the hollowness of the fashion world around her, disillusioned with her long-term medical student boyfriend Buddy, and sensing that her lifelong academic goals are equally hollow, Esther begins to be cut off in depression, the ‘bell jar’ of the title, eventually undergoing ECT and attempting suicide and becoming hospitalised. The book is striking for its wonderfully imagistic, witty and energetic prose, and moves at a great pace – the kind of book you really can’t put down.

I told the group how much I had loved the book previously, but said that this time I had a problem with it: I didn’t really know how to take it. The first time I read it I had entirely identified with Esther – apart from her suicidal impulses – but on this occasion I was shocked to find that I couldn’t always sympathise with her and indeed now and then I found I didn’t even like her. For instance, after the opening line, which is so striking that I had remembered it almost verbatim when I suggested the book: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs… the prose moves instantly away from political engagement to a self-obsessed focus on Esther’s own emotional state: The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick. It’s not the Rosenbergs who have her attention in this paragraph so much as the idea of suffering electrocution herself, which, as Hans would point out later, is fulfilled when her own first ECT treatment goes wrong and she suffers great trauma. Indeed, she goes further in distancing herself from the Rosenberg issue and painting it rather as an unworthy and hassling trauma to herself: That’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me , but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned all along your nerves (my bolds).

It would be possible to read this as self-ironic, were it not for the fact that we are clearly meant to take Esther’s depression and later trauma seriously, and of course should. On the other hand, there are clearly self-ironic moments: I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel./ That would fix a lot of people. There are occasions when we are clearly meant to laugh at, or at least with, Esther: at the way, for instance, she eats with unladylike greed at the Ladies’ Day banquet, and - embedded as a flashback within this scene - the way she cons her way out of taking a science course at college. But then we are not intended to laugh at the consequences and underlying currents: a traumatic food poisoning which symbolises the rot at the heart of this New York world and prefigures the deeper sickness which Esther will suffer, and the fact that, in spite of saying ‘I had to laugh when I thought about [the chemistry course]’, she admits ‘how scared and depressed’ she was about it. The drop in tone made me see the episodes retrospectively in a more serious light, which in turn, perhaps because of the (retrospectively inappropriate) levity of the earlier scenes, made me see Esther as potentially simply greedy and self-centred.

It seemed to me that my problem with knowing how to read the book had something to do with the tone, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. John put in here and said that yes, on this reading he had found the first half too flippant for the grimness of the second half. I wasn’t sure I agreed with this. I wouldn’t say that the tone was ever flippant, and there are dark ironies I really appreciated. For instance, when Esther begins contemplating suicide she thinks that if you are going to jump off a building then the higher the storey the safer
, since you are more likely to kill yourself, and that a gun is dangerous only because you are most likely to bungle the attempt and end up living.

I said that I was also surprised to realize on this reading something that I hadn’t noticed the first time, and which I have never heard or read anyone noting: that this is a story of suppressed grief. Esther’s father has died when she was a child, and Esther says quite clearly, though somewhat briefly, that she began to realize she had never been happy since she was running along the beach the summer before her father died. Suicidal and living with her mother, she visits the town she grew up in and her father’s grave:
…my legs folded under me, and I sat down in the sopping grass. I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard.
Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death.
It is immediately after this that Esther makes the almost-successful suicide bid that lands her in a psychiatric hospital.

Having become aware of this theme, it seemed the real one to me, but I felt it was somewhat subsumed in (and possibly, indeed, cuts across) the more overt feminist theme. There is the depiction of the brutality of male obstetrics: I thought it was just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been. Buddy’s mother is described as turning herself into a floor rug for others to walk on, and there is a strong implication that Esther’s depression is a reaction to the fact that in a world in which she is expected to type dictated letters she wants to ‘dictate [her] own thrilling letters’.

I wondered therefore how aware the author was of this theme of suppressed grief, and if this is the source of an uncertainty I found in the novel. At this point I had become curious to see what others had written about the themes of the novel, and had done a brief bit of Googling. I didn’t find any mention of Esther’s grief about her father but was interested to find a fair amount of disagreement in particular about the end of the novel. While Marjorie Perloff sees the book as being about Esther’s need to find herself in a world that divides women from themselves (she quotes the extensive dismemberment imagery in the novel), and the ending as Esther’s rebirth, Diane Bonds argues that in fact at the end Esther dismembers herself in order to fit into society (quoting the wedding imagery that appears there). Personally, I feel that the ending is extremely ambiguous, and also that it’s hard not to read into it the fact that Plath did commit suicide not long after the book was written, which adds to my sense of the uncertainty of the whole. Therefore, I said, I would be interested in what the others in the group thought.

I was much briefer than this in my introduction and didn’t quote chapter and verse as I have here, so I probably wasn’t very convincing. Jenny said firmly that she had really liked the book, and Trevor agreed. Trevor said, You want to take no notice of that internet stuff, and said what he thought the novel was about, but I’m really sorry to say that I can’t remember what that was. I think he disagreed that the ending was ambiguous (one or two people had agreed that it was), but I don’t remember how he interpreted it.

Some saw the book as being simply about mental illness, I think, including Hans who said, But there isn’t a feminist theme in it, is there? I said, Well, what about the fact that Esther immediately identifies Marco whom she meets at a party as one of those men who hates women, and Hans said, Well there are men who hate women – implying, I think, that Plath wasn’t making any particular feminist point about this. Someone (maybe Trevor) pointed out to me that Sylvia Plath would never even have heard of feminism, and I said that that didn’t make her message any less feminist, but I didn’t get the feeling that I convinced. Jenny said that this book was taken up as feminist during the seventies and eighties because it hit a chord, and I think she was implying that its feminist slant was over-emphasised then. There was a fair bit of discussion about mental illness and its changing treatment, and changing definitions of depression and schizophrenia, which Jenny as a one-time sociology lecturer knew a lot about.

Jenny said that when she read it in the seventies she hadn’t liked it as much as everyone else, but that this time she had liked it a lot because now she can see how it fitted in with something which I think she called Symbolic Interpretation, which she said was a theory very current at the time of the writing of the book. She said that that thing about the Rosenbergs, for instance, was a comment on the world around Esther (ie as opposed to the way I’d analysed it). No one else knew what Symbolic Interpretation was, and I asked her to explain. She said it was a way of looking at the world in terms of symbols, and although I momentarily thought I understood, I don’t in retrospect: it seems to me quite simply that all writing is symbolic interpretation, although Plath’s imagery is certainly heavily symbolic.

All these different interpretations were serving to emphasise my sense of an uncertainty at the heart of the book. I asked people what they thought of Esther’s mother, as Diane Bonds interprets her as monstrous, which I hadn’t myself. Everyone agreed with me: they thought the mother was simply inadequate and over-conventional, and some even said that at moments they could feel sorry for her. Trevor said again that I shouldn’t bother with internet stuff, but I think it’s instructive that Bonds could interpret such statements of Esther’s as ‘My mother wasn’t much help’ as indicative of monstrosity, ie that this may be symptomatic of a difficulty in getting to grips with the tone of the narration.

Ann said that she had enjoyed the book very much, but that she too had had a difficulty in knowing how to read it. Mainly she felt that it was just about impossible to read it without knowledge of Plath’s suicide very soon after writing it, and impossible to know how one would read it without that knowledge.

Jenny and Trevor said that they thought it was entirely possible to read the book without injecting that knowledge into it, and I felt that they thought it was wrong to do so.

Ann said, though, that she suspected that Plath's depression at the time of writing had actually affected the tone of the book: that the book was an attempt to rise above the situation with wit and a resolution, but it was undercut by her continuing depression, which also gives rise to the ambiguous ending. This, I think, hits the nail on the head.

Trevor, though, reiterated that you could read it without knowing about Plath’s suicide, and someone, I think Jenny, said, But it’s brilliantly written! – which, having taken it for granted, I had failed to say, and I quickly agreed, as did everyone. People then spent some time talking about the bits they’d particularly liked, especially the funny bits. Trevor loved the bit about Esther thinking her finger-bowl was soup and drinking it all up, the little flowers and all. Hans said he found it really funny when Esther was walking around with a yellow scarf tied to her neck, her first attempt at suicide, but was unable to find anything to hang it on to, and others agreed. I said, But that wasn’t meant to be funny, was it? And Hans readily agreed, as did the others, and I said, Well, this illustrates that there is a difficulty with the tone of the book.

Then Doug spoke up. He said that when he first read the book years ago he thought it was absolutely marvellous, maybe the perfect book, but that his reaction this time was far stronger than mine: he didn’t like any of the people in it. I said, But aren’t they all seen through Esther’s eyes? And he said, yes, but that’s what he didn’t like, the sneery, snobby tone of the whole thing - a quiet bombshell that more or less ended the discussion.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.


Rachel Fenton said...

There's so much contradiction in there - with the tone/register shifting. I suppose mirroring depression itself. It is a narcissistic illness...always so fascinating to read varying interpretations of one text.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for reading, Rachel. Yes, I think that's an essential point, that the shifting tone of the book mirrors the illness.