Thursday, October 2, 2008
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I find myself completely stymied when I try to write about my response to The Bell Jar. I can't imagine what I might have to add to a book that has been discussed by so many people over the past fifty years. People have written dissertations about Sylvia Plath and her personal experiences. My first introduction to The Bell Jar was my dad's use of it in his high school English classes. This is one of those works of *literature* that I have wanted to read but up until now had never gotten around to. I knew enough about the topic that attempted suicide was a theme and therefore I had waited to read it until I was in the right frame of mind for a less than uplifting book.
In fact, I found the themes of The Bell Jar to be more interesting and relevant than I had assumed. To me, Plath has done an incredible job describing the stresses of mid-American life for post-adolescent women. The concerns about sexuality, the feeling of inadequacy based on gender, the discontent with understanding psychological problems all appeared strikingly well in this book. Plath has done a remarkable job at allowing the reader to enter the mind of a woman whose life is at odds with the culture in which she lives. In many ways the characters disenchantment with society is not only understandable it is possibly even laudatory (not that I am advocating attempted suicide, but I can imagine the isolation and discontent that the character felt within her enclosed world and the outlet that she chose based on her experiences).
Moreover, Plath's poetic talent resound in the writing of the book. In very few words Plath succeeds in painting a panoramic picture of both the world in which she lives and the internal conflict of her protagonist. I found myself examining her use of terminology to describe in short order a detailed scenario. Plath's description of characters in particular resonated to me. I could imagine the smallest detail of individuals like Buddy and Joan although Plath never fell to describing them carefully.
Having read The Bell Jar, I am curious to know more. I did a quick internet search on the book to answer a few questions about the text that left me curious. I would now like to go back and read her poetry. I am also intrigued to read a biography of Sylvia Plath to compare to The Bell Jar in order to better understand where fiction met autobiography in her work.
To me The Bell Jar is a seminal work in twentieth-century American literature. Everyone should have to read it. Although it was first written over fifty years ago, many of the themes remain relevant today. I can imagine scenarios in which I would hand this book to a college age woman who was undergoing a stressful period while trying to find her place in society. The book is much less fatalistic and depressing than I had feared. Although Plath did take her own life, the book ends on an optimistic note suggesting that the main character had overcome the challenges that had shaken her so strongly.