Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a cliché. It is stereotyped such that it might as well be a membership card Sad Girlz Club Worldwide–it’s the marker of that archetypal girl who writes poetry to cope with her depression and wears quirky, unshapely clothes but still hopes the boy of her dreams will pop out of a novel and into her arms. But as the protagonist realizes in the last episode of the show Master of None, under its hackneyed reputation, The Bell Jar remains a remarkably profound book.
I went through my angsty phase earlier than most people. Or maybe I’ve always been angsty. But even that is putting it euphemistically…No matter, by fourth grade I was obsessed with Sylvia Plath, not so much for her writing as for her persona. I read quite a bit of her poetry, albeit in sort of a perfunctory way, but my mother forbid me from reading The Bell Jar. For a while I was deeply frustrated by this, but eventually I accepted it and moved-on. I didn’t end up finally reading The Bell Jar until my senior year of high school when it was assigned for my AP literature class. And this was the perfect time for the book to come to me again…
At the point in my life I was caught in a chicken-or-egg question of misery, that combined unrequited love and mental illness. I describe these circumstances as vague as possible because this is after all a blog about death, not about psychiatric health nor heartbreak–Yet, The Bell Jar helped me accept, or at least understand, the relationship between these things.
Underlying the clichéd picture of the novel that I drew on at the beginning of this post is the notion that The Bell Jar is a “book for girls.” Like every stereotype, there is truth in this, but rather than describing it as for girls, I’d say that The Bell Jar put me in touch with the pains of being a woman. That sounds trite, but I can’t put it any other way. Maybe Esther is not heartbroken, but she is certainly used by males and overtaken with concern about sex, and the uniquely feminine struggle to balance being a serious and sexual being.
But as she struggles to figure all these things out, as I’m still doing and maybe never will, there is always that bell jar…Waiting to encompass her at any moment is that stopped-world of depression and death obsession. But just as “people who leap from burning windows… It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames,” maybe the cold emptiness of that bell jar is still a relief from real life.
(Kahlo, Frida. El Sueño (La Cama). 1940. Nesuhi Ertegun Collection, New York, USA; Title: Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: 1971; Quotation: Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995)