Let’s Discuss — The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at. It would take two motions. One wrist, then the other wrist. Three motions, if you counted changing the razor from hand to hand. Then I would step into the tub and lie down (147)

In The Bell Jar, Plath gives the reader a disturbing yet poetic look into the life of a young woman who has slipped into the void. Esther Greenwood, who by many standards should be pleased with her life, isn’t. Shortly after interning at a fashion magazine she descends into “madness”. Trapped under the bell jar, suffocating and withering away,  she enters an asylum after attempted suicide.

Is there anything wrong with Esther? Physically–probably not, but the reader won’t know for sure. It’s the emotional stimuli that are most fascinating; the physical reactions are just that. The emotional hollowness Plath secures for the reader is not drawn from the everyday* or a Moody Monday. It seems that Esther can’t help but to have a breakdown. You might get the feeling it’s in her nature, this destructiveness. And yet there’s something about her the reader may relate to; she’s selfish and small talk and other everyday interactions leave her feeling stale. Her internship had her surrounded by silly women all day and she didn’t have to work for anything. She feels displaced and yet she feels nothing, day in and day out.

Flashbacks to her relationship with her quasi-boyfriend, Buddy Willard are important because they build this box** of expectations that Esther was contained within. These expectations Buddy has for them are discouraging (because they are seemingly one-sided). The same can be said for all the interactions Esther has with men*** in this book. Just downright discouraging. I think this aspect of the book is most enduring. That and the descriptions  of Esther’s melancholic, self-destructive nature:

Then I lifted my right hand with the razor and let it drop of its own weight, like a guillotine, onto the calf of my leg. I felt nothing. Then I felt a small, deep thrill, and a bright seam of red welled up at the lip of the slash. The blood gathered darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle into the cup of my black patent leather shoe (148)

[…]

Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one…The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep (169)

The novel is filled with these passages. Lovely, aren’t they? By the end we see Esther improve somewhat, and it seems she will most likely leave the asylum and reenter the world she rejected.

* This novel is semi-autobiographical

**Bell Jar, another figurative bell jar.

***I am sure there is feminist discourse in this piece, but I’m not qualified nor interested to delve into that school of thought.

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