Tuesday, April 19, 2016
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I chose The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath as my classic for April because I've wanted to read it for years and I was so excited when I found my copy in a box that had not yet been unpacked from our move, 3 1/2 years ago. I couldn't wait to dive in.
The Bell Jar is Sylvia's fictionalized account of her own story, beginning with her month working for a magazine in New York City. Because I've read about this time period in Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder, I was surprised to find that it felt like I'd already read the book. I didn't realize the nonfiction account I've already read covered the same time period fictionalized in The Bell Jar.
On the plus side, I did enjoy finally getting a glimpse of why everyone thought Sylvia so brilliant. Her prose definitely sparked with her own unique turn of phrase; she was clearly a talented writer. Somewhere around here, I have a volume of her poetry and I'm looking forward to that even more, now that I've gotten a glimpse of her writing.
On the negative side, The Bell Jar is truly, deeply disturbing. It's one thing to read about Sylvia Plath and the various theories about what exactly, during that fateful month, may have set her on the downward spiral that led to a suicide attempt and treatment that sounds more terrifying than the depression; it's another to read it through her eyes. It's not heavily fictionalized; it hovers very close to the actual events, including an attempted rape that she successfully fought off.
Recommended for the writing and to help understand depression but with a warning - I thought Sylvia Plath did an excellent job of actually showing the agony of depression and how it leads to irrational thoughts and behavior. The scene in which she tosses her clothing off the roof of the hotel is one that I think is particularly telling, as it shows her irrationality in a vivid, effective way.
Reading The Bell Jar, then, may help those who simply don't get depression to at least get a glimpse of its complexity, particularly those who consider the depressed and their attempts at suicide "selfish" or think people take their own lives specifically to get back at people who have caused them pain (a simplistic viewpoint that places blame on the victim without attempting to understand the emotions involved). However, I do think this book should come with a warning. It's so dark and despairing that it took two fairly light follow-up reads to get past the melancholy that it inflicted on me. Absolutely do not read The Bell Jar if you're already feeling blue.
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