“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs . . .”
So begins The Bell Jar, with an opening sentence that foreshadows events to come. Such a sentence promises the reader we are in for a remarkable story. If only the book lived up to that promise. If only its author had lived to write other, better books. If only.
The Bell Jar was first published in London in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Ostensibly, Sylvia Plath didn’t want her mother and other family and friends to be hurt by the way they were pictured. Friends have said she would never have wanted the book to come out under her own name while her mother was alive.
But there were other reasons to hide behind a nom de plume. Plath questioned the literary value of the book. She confided to a friend that she thought of it as a pot boiler, “an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past”. For someone who had been receiving accolades for her poems and short stories since her college days, this semi-autobiographical novel wasn’t serious enough to meet her own literary expectations. In spite of the warm critical reception the book has maintained over the years – in spite of my own respect for Plath as a woman and a writer – I think her instincts were right. As a coming-of-age narrative The Bell Jar is not in the same class as The Catcher in the Rye, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or To Kill a Mockingbird. She had better books in her, I know – it’s tragic that she didn’t live to write them.
We tend to speak of Plath in hushed tones. She was a gifted poet who suffered from depression all her life. She was institutionalized on several occasions and was treated multiple times with electroconvulsive therapy. The Bell Jar, while not strictly a memoir, is autobiographical in all the ways that matter.
I first read it in my twenties. I had my own struggles with depression and I was profoundly affected by Plath’s description of undergoing shock treatment. It seemed a barbaric procedure – it still does. But these scenes don’t occur until we’re more than halfway through the book. For the first hundred pages or so the writing is rather precious. It has the self-conscious cleverness of a university English major. I kept feeling I was a reluctant guest at a party of young people – students, I guess – all having what they assumed were witty, original conversations about issues that ceased to be interesting to me about three decades ago.
Esther Greenwood, a 19-year-old college student from Massachusetts, is one of a dozen young women chosen to spend a month in New York working on a fashion magazine. It’s a dream opportunity: “I was supposed to be having the time of my life”. Instead, Esther feels numb. She drags herself from her hotel to work and to parties and back to her hotel, feeling “very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”. Torn between society’s expectations of the way she should feel and her inability to feel anything at all, she attempts to join in with the others, even resolving, unsuccessfully, to lose her virginity. When college starts that fall she can’t concentrate on reading or writing, she can’t sleep. Eventually she stops bathing and her mother takes her to a psychiatrist.
This is where, you would think, the story would get interesting. Having had a few sessions with smug, even urbane psychoanalysts back in the day, I was expecting some real insight into the politics of the doctor-patient relationship. Instead we learn that Dr. Gordon is young, good-looking and conceited, and not particularly adept at reading minds. After only a couple of sessions, he recommends shock therapy. The description of the procedure is short, graphic and unvarnished – in my opinion it’s one of the strongest pieces of writing in the book:
“Dr. Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite.
“I shut my eyes.
“There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.
“Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air cracking with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.
“I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.”
The treatment is not a success. Voices in her head taunt her: “[You’ve] got the perfect setup of a true neurotic. You’ll never get anywhere like that, you’ll never get anywhere like that”. She can’t sleep – her college professor says her writing is factitious. Suicide presents itself as a way out – possibly the only way out. She tries to hang herself but can’t find a place in her mother’s house to tie the rope. With friends at the beach she swims out as far as she can, hoping to drown herself. But each time she dives down under the water, she bobs up again to the surface. One rainy afternoon she visits her father’s grave on the outskirts of town. This seems to settle something in her mind. The next morning, after her mother leaves for work, Esther hides herself in a crawl space in the basement, swallows a large amount of sleeping pills, and slips into unconsciousness. She awakens in a hospital with no permanent physical injuries; when her brother asks, “How are you?” she looks her mother in the eye: “The same,” she says. Nothing has changed.
It’s at this point Plath introduces the concept of the bell jar. On her way to an expensive private hospital, courtesy of a famous novelist who’s undertaken to fund her treatment, Esther knows she should be grateful. The problem is, she can’t feel a thing:
“If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
Esther’s new psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, is young and female and although she, too, recommends electroshock treatments, she assures Esther they will be nothing like the terrifying procedure she endured at the hands of Dr. Gordon. Under Dr. Nolan’s guidance, Esther experiences some improvement. She’s allowed to leave the hospital from time to time and hopes to be discharged in time for the winter semester at college. As the novel ends, she enters the interview room where the hospital doctors are gathered to decide if she’s well enough to be discharged. Dr. Nolan reassures her that she will be fine, but Esther isn’t so sure.
“How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
In the early morning hours of February 11th 1963, a month after the first UK publication of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath turned on the gas and put her head in the oven, having first sealed the rooms between her and her sleeping children. She was 30 years old.
As I said – if only.