Thursday, June 5, 2014

reading sylvia plath’s “the bell jar” unscathed

Thursday, June 5, 2014

reading sylvia plath is like walking through a tunnel, where, instead of a bright, promising light, there is only an indomitable dark opening at the other end. but without a doubt, you experience an inexplicable warmth and beauty in her words even as you struggle to understand why death is a foreboding cloud that follows her around.

i’ve read a few of sylvia plath’s poems, and although i’m a reluctant fan of poetry as i honestly  grapple with words, symbolism and covert meaning all the time, i must say that she’s got me engaged in moments of uncertainty and bliss and misery. plath was a wordsmith who speaks directly to the emotion of every woman who welcomes groundless desolation into her life like it was an inescapable force.

sylvia plath, poet

in “the bell jar”, plath vividly describes, as narrated by her 19-year-old fictional self esther greenwood, what it’s like being in it—her invisible, perilous psychological bell jar. it is a suffocating place from where she is in touch with the world, yet has momentary hankering to be away from it. it is clear from the beginning of the novel that she suffers from the contradicting emotions of knowing that she should be celebrating her month-long stint in new york but is uncontrollably feeling the exact opposite of it.  esther says,

“i was supposed to be having the time of my life. i was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls...” and,

“i felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

the chapter on esther’s homecoming reveals her emotional descent through what seems like an eternal spiral staircase. i had moments when i couldn’t clinch a nail on what she’s exactly feeling and why everything for her seems like an endless pit. i have found her suicide attempts at first very pointless (although i would not dare say that there is such a thing as a meaningful suicide). a rejection from a writing course, the dearth of inspiration, and the general lack of meaning and direction in her life pushes her to believe that killing herself was the only way out of the self-perceived darkness engulfing her.

esther’s futile attempts leads to shock therapies and confinement to the asylum.

her narration of her life inside does not bellow in anger, and is even sometimes funny, but there is that calmness in her voice that makes her words melt on you. it can be disturbing and equally compelling.

the bell jar is the only novel written by sylvia plath, pulitzer prize for poetry awardee. her other published books are compilations of her poems such as ariel, crossing the water and letters home. plath ended her life when she was 30 years old following years of severe depression and a troubled marriage to poet laureate ted hughes. a few years later, ted hughes’ lover, assia wevil, also killed herself along with her two-year-old daughter, the very same way plath did. both women stuck their head into the oven, turned the gas taps on full and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. in 2009, nicholas hughes, plath’s son, hanged himself. he also suffered from severe depression. 

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