25) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Due to the whole English teacher thing, people react with astonishment when I tell them that I haven't read certain books. There's an undercurrent of malice laced in with said astonishment which I attribute to the fact that whatever book in question is near and dear to the person's heart. "You haven't read WHATEVERSOMESUCHBOOK?! And you call yourself a teacher?" Most of the time I chuckle at their indignation and respond with some cliche about nobody being perfect because I'm not. Books exist to be read, whether that's prior to a stupid conversation or not doesn't matter. The Bell Jar has always been one of those books.
And having read it now, it's pretty great.
The title originates from the metaphor that Esther Greenwood uses to describe the all-encompassing depression that overwhelms her to the point of attempting suicide, mirroring Plath's own battles with depression to which she eventually succumbed. So it's a downer for sure, but I was really surprised at the humorous way Esther describes the beginning portions of her time in New York. There's a detachment (further evidence of her coming depression) she displays that makes the situations she faces come across as absurd and ridiculous.
However, her depression comes in waves and hits her hard when she returns home. It's safe to say that everyone has been depressed at least one time in his or her life, but battling clinical depression is an entirely different animal. Plath gives the clearest vantage point into the mind of someone struggling with depression that I've ever read. It's one thing to discuss symptoms and describe how someone feels, but her prose offers a visceral idea of the pervasiveness of depression. When Esther tells the reader what she wants to say and then finds herself shocked that she can't bring herself to say it out loud to the other characters is as good an example as any to describe the burden she feels. Knowing that the story is virtually autobiographical (At one point, Esther considers writing an autobiographical book and considers calling her main character Elaine because it has six letters, like Esther. Also, like Sylvia. This is where the publishers should put the neon sign calling it an autobiography.), makes it all the more tragic considering the eventual outcome for Plath. Heck, Esther herself isn't safe considering her admission that she fears the bell jar will descend again in the future.
Going into reading the book, I already had plenty of knowledge about it considering that it's been part of the school's senior literature project since I began teaching. This was less about what happened in the plot than it was about the experience of how it all goes down. Having read it, I thought I might even get into my own theories about why she's depressed. Some people are more prone to depression than others due to brain chemistry and what not, but there has to be a catalyst, something that sets the depression off.
The answer surprised me: she's an honors student. There's even a scheme she pulls off in chapter 3 that reads like something that an honors student might attempt. Esther Greenwood is someone so focused on academia and grades and the overwhelming need to be number one in her class with 4.5 GPA that she neglects to live. She lives her life for school and, as a consequence, doesn't have any friends to whom she can relate. Romance is foreign to her. The high standards she sets for herself and others prevents her from having any meaningful interaction with another person. And for what? Esther has no idea what awaits her outside of school because she doesn't have a plan beyond it; given the time period her options feel pretty limited, considering the idea of getting married and having kids doesn't sound appealing.
Also, while Plath/Esther's battle with depression is a central idea throughout the course of the book, this isn't a text that would be helpful to people with depression other than something with which to relate. This isn't a story where the main character overcomes her struggle and then lives on happily ever after. Her problem is present, persistent and remains with her long after the story is over, and, looking at Plath's life following the book, things didn't turn out well. But that's what makes it a novel with the staying power it has.