Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I would never have picked up The Bell Jar had it not been the selection of the online book club I joined recently. Sylvia Plath was the poet who killed herself by shoving her head into the oven. I had consciously avoided authors like Sylvia Plath for a long time ever since reading about a character in Larry Mcmurtry' Evening Star who was obsessed with Camus and ended up in prison with a shitty view of life and human nature. I had then lumped Camus, Woolf, Dostoevsky, Sartre (exactly how many philo majors had this philosopher corrupted? was my thought then) under the heading "suspect literature," never to be touched.

The nice thing about being forced to read a book (like in school) is that sometimes you end up really liking it. As I did The Bell Jar. The book is an autobiographical story of a girl's descent into madness and subsequent rehabilitation. It is more or less a retelling of Plath's actual experiences when she was about to graduate from her college: her winning of writing prizes, her straight A's, her being rejected in a creative-writing class, her early suicide attempts.

How to describe the book? The narrator Esther is Holden Caulfield-- only female, smarter and neurotic. If you are interested to know how it is to more or less suffer a nervous breakdown and spend time in a mental asylum, reading The Bell Jar would be time well spent. I found the ending particularly touching. Esther was waiting to be called for her final interview before she gets approved to leave the mental asylum for good, and she was not quite sure whether she was sane enough:

But I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure at all. How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?
xxx
I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead - after all, I had been "analyzed." Instead, all I could see were question marks. I kept shooting impatient glances at the closed boardroom door. My stocking seams were straight, my black shoes cracked, but polished, and my red wool suit flamboyant as my plans. Something old, something new. . .

But I wasn't getting married. There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice - patched, retreaded and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder.

"All right, Esther."I rose and followed her to the open door.

Pausing, for a brief breath, on the threshold, I saw the silver-haired doctor who had told me about the rivers and the Pilgrims on my first day, and the pocked, cadaverous face of Miss Huey, and eyes I thought I had recognized over white masks.
The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.


We know that years after that incident, the bell jar again descended on Sylvia Plath. In the imagination of every student of literature, Sylvia Plath in her kitchen dying of gas asphyxiation looms as large as the image of Virginia Woolf wading into the river to drown, or closer to home, Maningning Miclat jumping off the FEU building with a bunch of flowers.

3 comments:

Prem said...

We did a report on Sylvia Plath in English 11.
I say: she is a gory writer, a romantic.

Ronnel said...

Yup, gory. There are some passages in the novel that are painful to read, like her first tentative attempts at slitting her wrist: "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." Really deathmonger.

Ronnel said...

deathmongers: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf...