Sylvia Plath’s only novel is a semi-autobiographical story of a young woman, Esther Greenwood, and her struggles with depression fueled by childhood trauma, perfectionism, and societal expectations. The story follows Esther during a summer internship at a women’s magazine in New York City and her return to the suburbs of Boston.
Content warning: this post discusses depression and suicidal ideation.
This is going to be less of a traditional review and more of a meditation on what The Bell Jar means to me, because its sentimental importance to me eclipses any thoughts I’ve had about the writing or narrative to the point where I just can’t remember any of those more analytical thoughts now, a few months after re-reading the book.
The first time I read The Bell Jar was in my freshman of undergrad. I was going through perhaps the worst bout of depression I had yet experienced. I had lived with depression since I was a young teenager, but when I graduated high school I had the notion that moving away from my hometown for college would allow me to reinvent myself, to change everything I hated about myself and my circumstances instantly and with little effort. Once I got to college I had to reckon with the reality that I was still fundamentally the same–that I still suffered from extreme social anxiety and didn’t know how to make friends, didn’t know where or how to start trying to better myself. I felt utterly hopeless. I thought about what it would be like to die instead of continuing to live a life that felt like everyone else was on the other side of soundproof, unbreakable, one-way glass. I couldn’t understand my peers and felt like they couldn’t understand me. I felt invisible, unreachable, and totally alone.
The Bell Jar was assigned reading for a seminar course that the entire freshman class of my honors college (around 60 people I think?) was required to take. I remember the dean of the HTC (honors tutorial college), one of the course’s co-instructors, saying to us during class when we were in the middle of the book, “If you’re reading this book and really identifying with Esther, that isn’t good, and you should probably talk to campus psychological services.” The comment was met with a sort of well-meaning, slightly uncomfortable chuckle from the class. I wonder now how many of my classmates were feeling what I was feeling then. I identified with Esther heavily, but it felt like a lifeline. Someone had gone through what I was going through, put those feelings to paper and made a story, and that story hit home with enough other people that it became a literary classic. I wasn’t alone. Sylvia Plath died by suicide at age 30, the same year The Bell Jar was published. I knew this when I was reading it, but it still gave me some hope. 30 was older than 18–if Plath could make it to 30, maybe I could too, and maybe by then I would find something else to keep me going until another milestone.
Seeing so much of myself in this book probably helped me more than I know. I think it was probably also important that I was reading it with so many other people my age. Even though I never talked to any of them about it, it seems plausible that subconsciously knowing that my peer group had had direct exposure to a story that was very similar to what I was going through would bring me comfort.
The first tattoo I got features fig blossoms in reference to my favorite passage in The Bell Jar, which remains one of my favorite metaphors in literature. The passage reads:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous power and another fig was a brilliant professor, […] and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
My tattoo has fig blossoms instead of the ripe fruit to remind me that pursuing one opportunity doesn’t mean there will never be others. One fig may keep me busy for a while, but if in time I find it overripe, my tree may have grown a new one.
My second read of The Bell Jar came almost 10 years after the first. I’ve changed a lot in that time, becoming much more confident in all ways and finally starting to understand how to make and strengthen friendships. But like many people who deal with mental illness, my depression hasn’t gone away. It probably won’t ever really go away. The asshole part of my brain is still an asshole that does its best to make me feel terrible about myself. Sometimes the asshole part of my brain is a lot louder than the parts that know I’m smart, creative, caring, strong, and funny, and that people do actually like me. But I’ve worked very hard to never let the asshole part of my brain win.