‘The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence,’ William Styron wrote in Darkness Visible, his short and devastating memoir of mental illness. ‘It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.’
‘A storm of murk’ captures perfectly the perceptions of Sylvia Plath’s surrogate narrator. ‘[W]herever I sat,’ Esther Greenwood believes, ‘on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’ Reading the novel is like looking at the world through thick curved gauze. The UN building outside her hotel is ‘a weird, green, Martian honeycomb.’ The audience in a cinema are ‘rapt little heads with the same silver glow on them at the front and the same black shadow on them at the back, and they looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moon-brains.’ New York weather consists of a ‘tropical, stale heat’ interrupted by rain that ‘flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of steam writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete.’ Esther’s own face in the mirror resembles ‘the reflection in a ball of dentist’s mercury.’ The Bell Jar is full of dead fish, suspended babies, signifiers of age and resentment. Sylvia Plath is so much associated with the dramatic, the Byronic, intense and appealing side of mental illness. Here Plath shows us what the condition is really like – the loss of intellectual clarity, the mediocre distortions of life and the evil of banality amplified to unbearable levels. Who could forget that first line: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
Esther Greenwood is a nineteen year old scholarship girl who has won a kind of luxury New York magazine internship in the summer of 1953. Having worked hard all her young life, this pinnacle – sequestered in an all-female hotel, and ferried from one inane social function to the next ‘like a numb trolley-bus’ – doesn’t seem worth the effort, and this disillusionment, compounded by a sense that nothing better or different should be expected, leads to a catastrophic breakdown. Back at her mother’s house, she considers and rejects a series of increasingly wilder life plans (for anyone who’s been there, the tornado of indecision and helplessness in this scene is actually scary) before trying to kill herself. There follows a series of macabre vignettes in macabre comedy as Esther tries, and fails, to end her life in the conventional ways. Slice your wrists? No, she can’t find a free bathtub. Drown yourself in the sea? No, it’s too scary. Hang yourself? The knots are too complicated. These scenes are a comic acting out of Dorothy Parker’s ‘Resumé':
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
After hitting on an almost successful method of self-slaughter – emptying a pill bottle in her mother’s basement – Esther is taken to a private asylum and there she recovers. After two hundred pages under the bell jar, Esther’s prose startles in its weight and clarity. She establishes control and freedom. But: ‘How did I know that someday – in college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?’
Christopher Hitchens pointed out that you can easily read Lolita from beginning to end ‘before noticing that in its ‘foreword’ —written not by the unreliable Humbert but by ‘John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.’—we learn that Lolita has died in childbirth. She’s over before she’s begun.’ Even creepier is the sense that we are ahead of Plath on this one. Early on in the novel we establishes that Plath/Greenwood is writing from a place of future safety – ‘I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.’ Everyone knows one big thing about Sylvia Plath – that she killed herself in 1963 (a month after The Bell Jar’s UK publication.) We know that the bell jar will be back, to finish the job. We see this coming – but Plath doesn’t.
I have an image of Plath as a practical and very funny person. The beliefs and rituals of an asinine blueblood American elite take on a mordant hilarity through the bell jar’s refracted gaze. It is a hipsterish sensibility, waspish and irreverent, predating Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran by some half century. A highlight from Esther’s NYC jaunt:
They imported Betsy straight from Kansas with her bouncing blonde ponytail and Sweetheart-of-Sigma-Chi smile. I remember once the two of us were called over to the office of some blue-chinned TV producer in a pin-stripe suit to see if we had any angles he could build up for a programme, and Betsy started to tell about the male and female corn in Kansas. She got so excited about that damn corn even the producer had tears in his eyes, only he couldn’t use any of it, unfortunately, he said.
And here is Esther on her benefactress and deus es machina:
I had read one of Mrs Guinea’s books in the town library – the college library didn’t stock them for some reason – and it was crammed from beginning to end with long, suspenseful questions: ‘Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her past?’ wondered Hector feverishly’ and ‘How could Donald marry her when he learned of the child Elsie, hidden away with Mrs Rollmop on the secluded country farm? Griselda demanded of her bleak, moonlit pillow.’ These books earned Philomena Guinea, who later told me she had been very stupid at college, millions and millions of dollars.
And this, from a memory of Esther’s medical student boyfriend, who has taken her to ‘a lecture on sickle-cell anaemia and some other depressing diseases':
One slide I remember showed a beautiful laughing girl with a black mole on her cheek. ‘Twenty days after that mole appeared the girl was dead,’ the doctor said, and everybody went very quiet for a minute and then the bell rang, so I never really found out what the mole was or why the girl died.
Esther’s ex is a nightmare of conformist male youth, sporty without being athletic, an aspiring doctor who shows little interest in the mysteries of the human body or the human heart. Naturally, Buddy Willard is the most popular boy in high school, and Esther admires him until they get together and she realises how little he really has to offer – by which time their respective parents are already speaking of marriage and childbirth. She only escapes this relationship when Buddy contracts TB, and is packed off to some rest-home in the Adirondacks: Esther gets on with college. ‘I simply told everyone that Buddy had TB and we were practically engaged,’ she relates, ‘and when I stayed in to study on Saturday nights they were extremely kind to me because they thought I was so brave, working the way I did just to hide a broken heart.’ This is the final para of chapter six, and there’s a wicked black humour in it. She’s like the kid at the end of Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar’ – while the servants wail about how they will tell the children, she helps herself to another piece of toast.
Part of Esther’s problem is the sense of being railroaded into conformity with a world not worth conforming with. ‘The Bell Jar restores the horror,’ Lionel Shriver wrote, and part of this horror is the horror of the white picket fence. Buddy takes her to watch a live birth, and Esther is horrified by the experience. It’s not just the obvious physical pain but the dead end of parenthood. Buddy tells her ‘in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.’ The suspended babies Buddy shows her, the births that didn’t quite make it, float in glass jars. And compare Esther’s reflections on maternity painkillers:
Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
… with her intuitions on electro-convulsive therapy:
I didn’t see how Doctor Nolan could tell you went to sleep during a shock treatment if she’d never had a shock treatment herself. How did she know the person didn’t just look as if he was asleep, while all the time, inside, he was feeling the blue volts and the noise?
A huge part of Esther’s problem is society’s expectations of conformism with a world that doesn’t seem worth conforming with. Nineteen is a powerful and stormy age. The drudgery of family, community, and dreary jobs is hardly reason to look forward. And yet everyone else seems to accept it. Are they insane, or just asleep? After recovery, Esther wonders: ‘What was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? These girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.’
A shame Plath checked out in ’63. Had she hung on another four years, she could have lived through the sexual revolution. And things are a lot more free and easy than in Esther Greenwood’s day. Still, for UK readers The Bell Jar provides insight and support to young people trying to make their way in a country run by the old that has written off its younger generations. And what would Plath have made of the situation faced by women in Europe’s Islamic communities, obliterated by the niqab, a opaque bell jar annihilating everything but the eyes? The Bell Jar remains a passionate instruction: don’t let anyone else set your expectations for you. Fifty years on, it is a storm indeed.