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 a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok–I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. –Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar
I don’t know what exactly prompted me to go to my local library and check out a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). Maybe I thought of this book after seeing something about this week’s new release of the collected letters of Plath’s late husband, Ted Hughes (to read the NYT review of the new Farrar, Straus, & Giroux Letters of Ted Hughes, click here). I’ve read a sprinkling of Plath’s poetry, but like most people, I probably know more about the author’s tragic biography than her actual work. So. To the library I went.
In this novel, at least, I’ve found that it’s difficult to separate Plath from her biography. The Bell Jar chronicles the decline of a young writer, Esther Greenwood who, like Plath, was apprenticed to a magazine in New York and then had a mental breakdown. Anyone who has felt disjointed or depressed, or anyone who has had thoughts of death and dying will find something in this story that resonates with their experience. That this book has the ability to connect with readers on these levels is its strength. The difficulty in reading a book like this, however, is that it takes a person into a dark space without necessarily offering a way out. The sadness in going into this space Plath creates in The Bell Jar is intensified by knowing that the author doesn’t make it out in her own life. Biography aside, The Bell Jar is an intense character study, and its grisly details–which range from the ins and outs of shock therapy to the inner workings of a troubled mind–will not easily be forgotten.
Photo: Alpine lake in Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.