Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar is also for sad boys
Shortly after moving to New York, I slipped into a deep depression. Initially, I fought it as one might struggle to stay awake after a long day, my head nodding or a car honking the only things that might make me open my eyes again. But, in the end, tiredness triumphed and I found myself trapped in a leaden and aimless sleep from which I struggled to wake up, every day, for months.
One morning during this lonely time, my feet dragged me to the Strand bookstore, where I picked out Sylvia Plath’s The glass bell from a “modern classics” table near the front. While some men might turn to self-isolation and brewskis when they’re feeling blue, I wanted a confidant in unhappiness. Esther Greenwood, the sharp-tongued but erratically disturbed young woman at the center of the novel, might be that confidante, I thought. I wanted to commiserate with someone who was struggling with similar burdens: job satisfaction, societal expectations, disillusionment with New York. But what I really wanted, I figured out, was to know that, unlike Esther and the writer who created her, I would eventually heal.
First published in London in January 1963 under a pseudonym, The glass bell it is Plath’s only novel. And, as with his two poetry collections, The Colossus And Ariel (her magnum opus), is impossible to read without the specter of Plath’s death by suicide hanging over her every word. Tragic and endearing in its nature, this event, which occurred within weeks of the novel’s publication to lukewarm reviews, launched her to international fame and subsequent stature as a tortured genius. The glass bellthen, it became the story of a woman who fails to end her life inscribed by the woman who succeeded in ending hers.
But apart from the roman à clef’s pseudo-documentation status of the inner workings of a wildly inventive sick mind, The glass bell is at its core a fierce Bildungsroman. Esther is a college student whose pedigree as a writer lands her a prestigious summer internship at a sophisticated New York women’s magazine. She’s wiser and snobbier than the other girls who live in her hotel than she is, though significantly less worldly: she wonders how much to tip a taxi driver and orders a simple glass of vodka for a date because she once does. he had seen in an advertisement. From foodie excursions to fashion shows and parties, Esther fulfills the life dreams of a million girls in 1950s Manhattan. But something is wrong with her. As she puts it, “I felt very still and very empty, as the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully amidst the surrounding din.”
What, in particular, is wrong with her is explained gradually. Within the pantheon of modern female literary figures, Esther may nowadays be associated more casually with the crackling melancholy of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway or Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier. But her constitution contains something these characters lack: a fury in her chest that drives her destructive behavior. Her shrewd dissections of New York high society are reminiscent of JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, with her penchant for rum ‘n coke and distaste for “fakes,” though Esther’s judgments remain less irascible and decidedly more interior and feminine.
Yet, her depression is rooted in an individual and inexplicable set of circumstances and biology, even as the unseen cultural and sexual politics that surround her like vultures undoubtedly contribute to her despair. After a date that ends in a violent sexual advance, Esther simultaneously reassembles and unravels as she throws her tarnished clothes off the roof of her hotel: her own ashes, gray wreckage have been ferried away, to settle here, there, exactly where I’d never know, in the dark heart of New York. Where the novel’s plot, like its narrator, sometimes meanders and becomes redundant, The glass bell he regains his footing in his prose. Crystal clear yet filled with a treasure trove of mournful imagery, Plath’s voice is strongest when she witnesses these scathing confrontations, the same stylistic distinctions that embody her poetry of her more haunting than her and have left her readers emotionally gutted and nourished for over half a century.
This doesn’t mean that The glass bell it is not bristling with wit; his tip is dipped in a pot of fine black humour. During one of several suicide attempts, Esther searches for a suitable place in her mother’s house to hang herself, but becomes frustrated with her inability to perform self-strangulation: “I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, like how to make me limp hands at the crucial moment, which would save him, time after time, whereas if I had any say, I would have died in a flash. Even formally, Plath’s meager paragraphs, unshakable in their anguish, advance one after the other with a pressing, almost manic frequency, as an animated friend vents to you today through a rapid series of text messages.
The glass bell celebrates the 60th anniversary of its first publication this January (it was not published in the United States until 1971). I must admit I was quite aware of how it had been a centerpiece of second-wave American feminism when I picked it up, but after reading it, sequestered to bed late into the night often, wrapped up in my own cycle of depression, it struck me just how much they were Plath’s intimate concerns are prophetic.
Gender roles for cosmopolitan young women have evolved, and psychiatric treatment has become markedly less barbaric since the 1950s (electroshock therapy helps Esther; cognitive behavioral therapy has rejuvenated me). Yet the frankness with which Plath outlines her protagonist’s outsized emotionality and thirst for direction speaks to generations of young women—and men, of course—who face the daunting task of settling in an ever-changing world. Although Plath was dubbed an overly sensationalist by some in her lifetime, her no-holds-barred interpretations of the toll mental illness takes on young people have made her a pioneer for contemporary representations of early womanhood, which are found everywhere. by Jay Asher Thirteen reasons why to the almost schizophrenic soundscape of Billie Eilish.
Though Plath took her own life, what she gave was language – for me, for the young women, for all her readers – to the horrific and maddening civil war waged within one’s skull that is mental illness. , and the resilience capacity of those who fight for its life. assault. It is a motion that knows no limits, no gender constraints. “To the person in the bell jar, empty and still as a dead child, the world itself is the bad dream,” Plath writes near the end of the novel. But like a bad dream or an aimless sleep that ends upon awakening, the bell jar, however suffocating, is just glass. It can be broken.
Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste magazine based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree from NYU in media studies and humor.