“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.”
I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar over a couple of days earlier in the month and it surprised me in so many ways. I had always been intimidated by Plath after experiencing her poetry as a teenager in secondary school. Unfortunately, her tragic death overshadowed her personality and I sensed a darkness in everything that she wrote. Suspiciously, we heard very little of her side of the story and her relationship with her husband Ted Hughes was also kept hidden.
Imagine my surprise then when I picked up this book and suddenly realised how readable it was. The writing was beautiful and incredible. Not a word was wasted. The more that I read, the more that I lamented that this was her one and only novel.
The novel starts with a Devil Wears Prada sort of vibe as a young intern enjoys a brief spell of dinners and events over the course of a summer. During this opening, Plath captures both the pressures and excitement of being a young intern on the cusp of a career in the fashion world. There are also the joyful pursuit of parties and romance to consider as these young ladies strive to make a space for themselves in the world.
About halfway through the novel, the vibe begins to change from jubilant optimism to a creeping and frantic depression. This subtle change happens over the course of the novel like the singular grains of sands squeezing through the midway point of an hourglass. You don’t notice it happening until it is too late. This is why this novel is a masterpiece.
After so much hope in the opening pages, it is distressing to read a dark and dreadful conclusion to the story. When you consider that many of the scenes in The Bell Jar are accurate recounts of Plath’s own experiences, this becomes even more unsettling.
Reading this novel really opened my eyes to how our minds work for and against us. One can only feel empathy for the main character as the dark clouds of depression creep in on her. No singular event causes this change in mood. This makes it all the more frustrating and inexplicable, but this is how it is in reality for us all.
Upon finishing the novel it is hard to know how to feel. Undoubtedly, one will realise that they have just read an iconic piece of literature. But there also is a sense of helplessness and despair as you consider the mortality and fragility of human life. I am glad that Sylvia entrusted us with this great work before she left us. This is an unflinching portrayal of struggle that takes us to the darkest corners of the human mind. In my opinion, reading this is a necessary journey towards a greater understanding of suffering. Simply put. This is a timeless classic.
“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.”
- Upon researching this book, one blogger who I cannot recall described this book as a very different read when considered from the perspective of the parent.