“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York”.
Is there a better opening line to a novel? It wasn’t until towards the end of this book, when the narrator, Esther Greenwood, has electro-convulsive therapy as part of her treatment for severe depression, and submits to it “like a person coolly resigned to execution” (203) that I was able to join the dots – she sees what happens to her as similar to what happened to the Rosenbergs. Note also that “they electrocuted the Rosenbergs” not “the Rosenbergs were electrocuted” – suggesting the existence of a shadowy and malevolent but wholly real external force that can take people’s lives. Not only does Esther not know what she is doing in New York, but as the novel develops it becomes apparent that her confusion is much deeper rooted.
Sadly it is now not possible, if it ever was, to separate any reading of ‘The Bell Jar’ from one’s knowledge of Plath’s own life (and death). She committed suicide a few weeks after ‘The Bell Jar’ was published under a pseudonym. The novel is largely autobiographical, and horribly foreshadows, even predicts, her final days. I don’t know whether this extraordinary book is an extended suicide note, or a cry for help – but I do know that I can’t remember reading a sadder novel. The ending, where Esther’s ECT seems to have been successful, and she finally starts to recover from her illness, is a false dawn all the sadder in the context of Plath’s death.
The novel opens with Esther enjoying something of an adventure, on a work-placement with a magazine in New York. She is academically successful, has enjoyed lots of advantages in life, and seems to have the world at her feet. She has not yet mastered the art of developing relationships with men, but is starting to experiment with her new found freedom. There are some aspects of life she finds hard – men consistently try to bully her, particularly when it comes to sex, and while she stands up for herself this is not an aspect of her life she is comfortable with. She doesn’t bond easily with the other women in her lodgings, and in the background is the loss of her German father when she was nine (Plath lost her German father when she was eight).
At first she appears to be in control, and the depression that comes to dominate her life is not immediately apparent. However, subconsciously, the signs are already there. Death, murder, suicide, and objects associated with death, constantly crowd her thoughts:
A lumpy bed is “shrouded by a thin white spread” (86); a silver lighter is “in the shape of a bullet.” (103), as is Doctor Gordon’s pencil “like a slim, silver bullet” (129); a mattress falls across Esther “like a tombstone” (119); a bath tub is “coffin-shaped” (18) and a telephone sits “dumb as a death’s head” (17).
The language of death pops uninvited, and unnoticed, into Esther’s mind all the time, even when there is no apparent connection with the subject. Death is everywhere:
“My penalty was the long, dead walk from the frosted glass doors of the Amazon” (95)
“Pretend you are drowning’.” (103)
“I felt like a hole in the ground” (15)
“At my feet, the city doused its lights in sleep, its buildings blackened, as if for a funeral.”(106)
“Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off” (107)
“A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death” (109)
“I cracked open a peanut from the ten cent bag I had bought to feed the pigeons, and ate it. It tasted dead, like a bit of old tree bark”. (131)
(On her mother’s snoring) “The piggish noise irritated me, and for a while it seemed to me that the only way to stop it would be to take the column of skin and sinew from which it rose and twist it to silence between my hands” (119)
Finally, these thoughts cannot be resisted, and the crisis point is reached.
“The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower” (92)
From this point Esther plans to kill herself, and these thoughts dominate her waking hours. She plans her suicide carefully, and her inverted thinking is reflected in the language she uses to discuss these plans:
(Of the Japanese) “They disembowelled themselves when anything went wrong” (132)
“The trouble about jumping was that if you didn’t pick the right number of storeys, you might still be alive when you hit the bottom. I thought seven storeys must be a safe distance”. (131)
Note the use of the word safe, meaning here to end in certain death, the complete opposite of its usual meaning.
Esther’s suicide attempts lead to her being sectioned. She dreads the ECT, even though finally it appears to have helped, if only temporarily. She describes her feelings during psychiatric analysis:
“I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, and then I would find words to tell him how I was scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out. Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep, and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.” (123/4)
So the father figure she is hoping for fails to appear. Equally, the young men in her life are not substitute fathers, failing to care for her.
This isn’t just a book about mental illness and suicide. It’s about growing up, about the way men behave towards women, it is about literature, and reading, and writing, and so much more. It is deeply sad, and provides an insight into the thoughts of a suicidal depressive who ultimately can’t understand her own illness, just wants it to end. In many ways it is a very difficult, challenging novel, and anyone in a similar position to Plath would fit little comfort in it. My edition carries a quotation from Joyce Carol Oates “A near perfect work of art”, and just this once I agree.