Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

            It is1953, the summer before Esther’s senior year as an English honors student at an Ivy League all-girls’ college.  She, as a skilled poet, artful writer, and top student, earns a month-long summer internship for a young ladies’ magazine in New York City.  It seems that Esther has everything going for her: a prestigious scholarship to a top college, a medical school beau, and a glittering internship.  In NYC, however, questions arise within Esther that she cannot answer, daunting questions about her future, her life after the internship, after the summer, after graduation.  They begin to eat away at her spirit and morale.  She could marry someone, perhaps Buddy Willard the med student, and clean his house, have his babies, and make his dinners.  Or she could pursue any number of professional interests such as author, professor, editor, or explorer.  She is frustrated that she must choose only one and give up the other option.  Her inability to choose one direction and forget the rest is a source of crippling anxiety.  The uncertainty of her own future terrifies this over-achieving young woman.  When Esther returns home from New York to await the start of the fall semester, her anxiety turns to apathy before spiraling into a deep and destructive depression.

            The reason this highly personal, highly autobiographical novel is viewed as more than a lost college girl’s diary entries written almost 20 years later is obvious.  Along with touching on themes of purity and sexuality, the feminist classic is a clear portrait of the tough choices young women faced not just in the 50s but for the past 60 or 70 years.  Any girl at a crossroads in her life would be struck by Plath’s ability to pinpoint the reader’s own personal fears about innocence, sexuality, marriage, education, and careers through Esther’s story.  The feminist struggle between family and career are debated from the perspective of someone with the beginning of this struggle on her horizon.

            One passage that exposes the stress college and even high school girls felt 60 years ago and still feel today gripped me with its imagery and its relativity to my own life.  Esther says she sees her life branching out like a fig tree, and each fig is a different future she could pluck and bite into.

For the record, I did not mark in this library book! :) The passage had already been underlined.  What kind of library worker would I be if I wrote in borrowed books?

            The fig tree appears earlier in the novel when Esther opens an anthology of short stories to find one about a Jewish man and a Catholic nun meeting under a fig tree.  The fig tree in the Bible is said to symbol prosperity, security, and peace, which are things Esther longs for, but she doesn't know which fig seems best suited to bring her happy security.

           Sylvia Plath’s novel and writing style is blunt and haunting.  I read it over the summer, which turned out to be long, dull, and lonely for me, so I was a bit frightened when the beginning of the novel truly resonated with me.  Esther starts at sad and confused and slides along the depression continuum.  Further into the book when I found I no longer shared her same thoughts or agreed with her plans to hurt herself, relief spread through me.  I’m not sure if I would recommend this book  as a remedy for depressive moods, but it did show me that I wasn’t alone in my helpless frustration and indecision.  While I appreciated the novel's strong themes of purity and awakened sexuality and could talk about them for ages and pages, the idea that stays with me months later is the fig tree.  The Bell Jar and its fig tree imagery gave me strange comfort and even while it left me haunted and intrigued by Plath and her own tumultuous life.

Have you read The Bell Jar?  Did you like it?  How did it affect you?

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