I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was a shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth. –The Bell Jar, 165
Now that NaNoWriMo is finally over and I’ve had a chance to recover, I can start catching up on some book reviews! Specifically, a series of three book reviews which I only call a series because they all feature women considering suicide. Cheery, I know, and just in time for the holidays! First up is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath because I finished it most recently and it has the most obvious example of a suicidal protagonist.
This is technically a reread for me, though, for some bizarre reason, I don’t remember half of it. I remember the first half of the novel, up to the point where Esther Greenwood tucks herself into a hole under the house with an empty pill bottle and lights flashing in her mind, but that is where my memory stops. I’ve always remembered it as ending there and thus found it curious and suggestive that the narrative is written in the first person but you know what? There’s nearly another 100 pages after that. I remember liking the book so I have no idea why I would have just stopped reading. Has anybody else ever had this happen? It’s bizarre.
Anyway. As many of you probably know, The Bell Jar is a heavily autobiographical work based on Sylvia Plath’s own depression, nervous breakdown, disappearance, and suicide attempt while at college. Much of the novel revolves around Esther’s conflicting desires to be a poet/academic/world-traveler and a wife/mother, which to her are irreconcilable.
Plath wrote it while was raising two small children and, perhaps unsurprisingly, in The Bell Jar there is a reference to the narrator’s baby, implying a recovery of sorts and much more, considering Plath’s ultimate suicide, which she performed with only a door between her and her own children.
My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. (134)
The novel is just so real. Esther’s voice is familiar and believable and the way she describes her depression is just so apt for anybody who’s ever just felt overwhelmingly sad without knowing why. The bell jar covers her, separating her from the world and souring the very air she breathes until she chokes on life itself.
The novel is given its power by the fact that outside of her depression and suicide attempt, Esther is still a real, identifiable person. Ultimately, who she is is what makes the novel – the novel is the character, not any specific event or situation. Considering having sex with a random guy just to even the score with her boyfriend, not knowing what drink to order at a bar, her desire to escape and embrace the life she has been taught to live – these features are all very mundane and thus, they are what make Esther Greenwood. Committing suicide does not make a character complete – it’s what they do and think before that act that shows who they really are and makes them whole. By being so identifiable, Esther comes to life.
This is definitely a must-read and not just because it’s one of those books that you’re “supposed” to read; it’s a must-read because of how familiar it already is and how much power it will have over you. It’s certainly not an upper, but definitely worth the sadness.