When I was 14 I went to my first of two art camps. Everyone else was older than me, and most of them were poets. I wrote a lot of bad poetry, trying to be cool. The other kids raved about bell hooks and Sylvia Plath, whom I knew nothing about, and I started working my way through The Cool Art Kids’ Pantheon, mostly modern, edgy poetry. After four years of dodging, I finally borrowed The Bell Jar from a friend’s bookshelf.
I finished the book a week ago, the night that I had to finish a big paper and study for a Geology test. Frankly, I didn’t have much time to think about it. I did not especially enjoy reading it, and I was ready to move on. I had a stack of Daniel Woodrell books waiting on my shelf.
But in the week since finishing Esther’s story, little pieces have kept popping into my head. Esther’s episode of feeling trapped inside a Bell Jar, and her flight into the woods, struck me. Her feeling of uselessness at the Ladies’ Day magazine reflect my and every young writer’s fears of insignificance. Plath had a few beautiful turns of phrase, and described electroshock therapy and Esther’s depressive episodes in the way that only someone who has experienced depression can. She bridges the gap for people who have not experienced depression, but does such a good job of the sticky, floating feelings of despair that it made me feel sick. And my argument would be that those feelings don’t resolve — we see Esther entering the interview room to find out if she can leave the hospital, but we don’t know if she does, and if she ever reaches a stable existence.
It’s not that I want a happy ending. And it’s not that I’m against endings that leave questions, and let the reader decide if Esther achieves some measure of happiness. It’s that the book seems mired in Plath’s own depression, the depression that eventually killed her. At the risk of sounding insensitive, Plath made the author’s mistake of letting her own despair cloud her ability to resolve a story.
I learned a lot by reading this book, and I did enjoy and appreciate pieces of Plath’s writing, just not the book as a whole.
I tweeted this sentiment on #readwomen2014, hoping for some feedback, and some comments on why Plath is considered a foundational writer of the 20th century. I understand the aspect of challenging women’s place in society, and the aspect of describing depression, but I don’t exactly think that the book as a book should be on the top 20 list. I got some great responses.
I guess I need to find Ariel, and dive into that.
Have you read Plath? Why should or shouldn’t she be considered an important American author?
Up next: Rabbits acting like people in Watership Down.
Have you read Plath’s work?