“when I took up my pen, my hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child, and the lines sloped down the page from left to right almost diagonally, as if they were loops of string lying on the paper, and someone had come along and blown them away”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
Picking a favourite line from The Bell Jar was almost impossible, because I had literally pages of them. I’m not usually one to mark up my books. I keep them in pristine condition, or at least as pristine as can be expected. But I had to keep track of the lines that caught my attention because they were just too good not to be documented.
The Bell Jar centres on Esther Greenwood, a successful scholarship student lucky enough to be selected for an internship at a prestigious New York fashion magazine, but she feels numbed by the experience. When her application to a summer school writing class is rejected, she feels at a loss and gradually succumbs to depression.
The line I have chosen beat the others to the finish line, not because it was any more eloquent than the others (Plath has eloquence in buckets, in swimming pools even) but because to me it was a definitive moment. It’s the point where it dawns something is seriously wrong that Esther can’t avoid, although she tries to bury it regardless. There are other warning signs of course, but this one is more alarming than the others.
The book is routed in language. Esther is a writer, and her narrative is peppered with metaphors and similes that show a vivid, intelligent mind that predominantly resides in a world of words. That’s one of the reasons that this small scene has such an impact, because the act of writing- something that is or should be the driving force of her thoughts and actions- has become alien to her. She doesn’t even recognise her own handwriting and more importantly she can’t control it.
It’s a book about having your expectations trampled on by reality and having the expectations of others forced upon you. Esther’s not a completely sympathetic character. She has her flaws, but she’s real and she’s struggling.
I put off reading The Bell Jar for years. I was scared to read it. I was told it was disturbing but it’s not. It’s honest and perhaps that is disconcerting for some. I felt closer to Esther in those chapters when she was starting to unravel. It felt as if an invisible wall was being demolished and every brick that fell revealed a person who did care, who worried, more than that, who was terrified. Many of Esther’s troubles are things we can all relate to; social pressure, success, finding where you fit.
It was such a delight to read. Her prose is so beautifully done that I’m itching to read her poetry collections as well. I would recommend it to everyone.