Or, being 30 and floundering for purchase in a superficial world.
Sylvia Plath has always had a strength in immersing readers in the disjointed. Reading her is like being enveloped in the uncanny as if it were a warm, almost smothering blanket. There is an immediacy that is palpable in her every word. She carves herself raw for our consumption at every turn. So perhaps it is no surprise that her only novel, the Bell Jar, feels like a pulsing nerve of unease at its peak.
I hadn’t read the novel in years before preparing for this piece. I knew it was dark, and light, and dark again with stifling rapidity, in the way Plath always is. As it turns out, reading this book at the same life point as the novel’s author is an entirely unique experience. I am on the cusp of 30 years old, and while some areas of my life feel pretty solidly figured out, there are other spaces that feel like foreign territory I’ve never been good at navigating. Like I’m unqualified to understand. As if everyone else around me knows something I don’t, some core information passed along at a time when I wasn’t looking.
Now, we might look at this and recognize the floundering unease of having to figure out a life we thought we had all planned and understood as common to being on the verge of a new chapter in life. There are plenty of things wrong with Plath’s novel that have nothing to do with its reasons for banning. It is an uncomfortable read for many reasons; some of which are easy to identify with — reading it now opens it fairly well to a pretty strong lens of millennial ennui — others, not so much.
There are several moments in Esther’s wading through the thick air of her personal bell jar where racism cracks out like a whip. Whether it’s her view of herself after a long and desolate night, or her interactions with staff at the mental institution she is eventually committed to, Plath’s descriptions are sticky and uncomfortable to read, and not just in modern times. They happen frequently enough that glazing over them without at least a mention when talking about the novel’s challenges would be a problem all it’s own. There is such casual venom in them that it takes you altogether out of an otherwise immersive experience.
Yet the vitriol in the language against the minorities Esther encounters in the book hardlly makes the list of reasons for its condemnation. Instead, it was and is most often banned for its profanity, sexuality, and, seemingly most strongly for “its overt rejection of the woman’s role as wife and mother”. As a result of its banning, one teacher in Indiana was not rehired after the book was removed from her class. The reasons should not be surprising, perhaps, and yet it never fails to amaze exactly where the priorities lie for parents and/or other adults who try to control what the children in their areas are reading.
Between Google and the reviews at the beginning of the HarperPerennial Modern Classics edition of Bell Jar, it seems most often hailed as the female version of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye and has been marked across men’s social media jokes as a “red flag” on a woman’s bookshelf. Ironically, Catcher is also frequently seen as a “red flag” on a man’s. Perhaps they truly are two sides of one coin, though the reasons they flag us may differ. As I talked about with Catcher last year, I suspect Holden Caulfield is closer to being an incredibly traumatized, heavily misunderstood character than the insufferable teen all used to mark him as. It just happens that the misunderstanding, at this point, is rather more willful than accidental.
Esther Greenwood is not so easy to misinterpret. She is rather more straightforward as a narrator than Holden, and for that perhaps much more dangerous to those who would wish to sweep her story under the rug. Still, we sit and try to pretend as if Esther’s reality is not one we, too, face today. Progress is certainly being made, but the line in the generational sand of talking mental health openly is clear and deep. Millennials onward seem keen to prioritize self care in a way that does not shy away from owning our struggles, but those before us seem to covet it as something to be more ashamed of and snuffed out. If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t have to be real. But the thing about not talking is that it doesn’t silence the feeling. Anyone making the argument that “depression didn’t exist” in any prior point of history is wrong, and stretching their own abilities to willfully misunderstand. Just because we did not have the tools to recognize and deal with it does not mean it wasn’t there. It means it was more of a silent killer.
Reading the Bell Jar is not an especially fun or positively fulfilling experience. But it remains an important one for its vulnerability. Published under a pseudonym, and kept from American audiences for as long as possible under Plath’s own wishes so as not to hurt her family’s feelings, the novel is more than fiction. It is a semiautobiographical moment in time published right before Plath herself would lose the fight against her own depression. Knowing how closely it mirrors her path makes it all the more unsettling to swallow, and yet to shy from it is yet more dangerous. Let it make you squirm. Let it hold a mirror up to you and reflect back the feelings that feel too dark to acknowledge. Let it make you laugh, and then steal your breath into its darkness a paragraph’s width apart. But do not let it sit silent. Do not let it die a death that means they won. They should never be given space to win. They should never be allowed to tell us how and when and what to feel or to consume. Together we can hold the bell jar of their making aloft, and cast it aside. Together we can shatter it with the strength of our voices. If the scariest thing they can imagine is a woman against the norm, then may we always be the stuff of nightmares.
For more of the Banned Book Series:
- The Well of Loneliness