“The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence.”
Going in to my second read of The Bell Jar, I wasn't sure how I was going to react. The first time I read Plath's novel, I was about 19 and home for the summer. A group of girls at the park were all reading the novel and they convinced me to read it as well. We all ended up talking about it a great deal, since many of us related to it in the same way. However, I do remember big pieces of the novel not necessarily relating to my life, and perhaps I didn't get everything from the novel I should have.
I will admit I was apprehensive about reading this again, but it felt right, so I dug in. The novel is no less painful the second time around-Esther Greenwood's spiral into depression is still absorbing and terrifying. Thankfully, I have a bit more perspective on my own life to not see as many connections, and I can understand the real significance of Plath's work and what Esther's spiral downward means for women, the feminist movement, and depression in general.
Essentially, The Bell Jar follows the story of Esther Greenwood, who is living in New York City at the start of the novel after winning a contest to work for a magazine. Her life is rather glamorous in the city. She lives with other girls who are also interning. They get free make-up and clothes, go to fancy parties, and seem to be headed on a successful track. However, as Esther starts to look closely at the life she's living, she realizes there are big holes in who she is, and she becomes unsure of the direction her life is headed. That is when the spiral begins. She stops caring. She stops feeling. She eventually stops doing everything because it all seems pointless. She says,
“I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.”
She also points out at one point that she stopped bathing and showering. Her point was that she was just going to get dirty again, so why bother to get clean in the first place? To someone who has never experienced that kind of depression, I'm sure that thinking seems...silly. And while I have never suffered from severe depression, I can understand Esther.
For the period of time after Matt and I were first married and I was completely unemployed, I went through some of those motions as well. I was in our apartment non-stop, refused to go out and see friends, and yes, went days without showering because really, what was the point? That kind of thinking it scary, and if you haven't experience, I imagine it must be hard to relate to Esther.
And for Esther, a lot of those feelings emerge once she starts thinking about her life and her "inadequacies."
“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.”
She believes that she has merely been skating along her entire life. Yes, while she was smart, she never had to work for anything. Everything she has asked for or worked for, she has gotten. So when she loses a writing internship shortly before she is due home from New York, it is the last straw to tipping her over the edge. That was the piece I believed I related to when I read this as a college student. College was really the first time I didn't feel as smart as I could of been. I wasn't the best writer in my English classes, I was the most knowledgeable in my history courses. That feeling of inadequacy was something I wasn't used to. I have seen realized that everyone feels that way at some point. And it's okay to feel that way. We all aren't super-geniuses.
It was after I passed this point on this read that I could see the rest of Esther's spiral into depression from different points of view. Obviously, knowing more about Plath and her life gives me better perspective about her writing of such a topic. I can also understand the historical significance of why Esther rebels so hard against the dream of getting married and having children (something that went over my head the last time I read this).
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing
I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off
from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions
myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
In all, my read of The Bell Jar was enlightening this time around. It's not an easy book to read (in part because the descent into depression seems so normal at points-that's off-putting), but it is an important novel, and one that I think is worthy of reading a few times. It also inspired me to learn a bit more about Plath. I've already ordered a volume of her journals, since I find her to be such an interesting woman. So, if you haven't read it, I think you should.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”