Every Woman Should Read “The Bell Jar”
And probably every man too.
CW: Mentions of suicide and mental illness.
I feel a little conflicted that I didn’t read The Bell Jar sooner. On the one hand, I wish I could have read it years ago, so I could have savoured it for longer. On the other, I think I’ve read it at the perfect time in my life. Reading The Bell Jar at 20 years old is a unique experience, to be reading something that runs so parallel with your own life. The novel centres around 19-year-old Esther, a gifted, promising young poetry writer who wins every scholarship available. She is brimming with potential and intelligence and finds herself on an internship in New York for a women’s magazine. Over the course of this internship, she begins to descend gradually into a depression, as she comes to terms with the fact that despite all her potential, she’ll have to pick one path for her life.
What makes the novel so harrowing is that it is based, in part, on Sylvia Plath’s own life. One of the most famous female authors of the century, Plath has managed to gain prestige and renown despite writing just one novel. The Bell Jar so closely mirrors her own life, it’s hard to consider it a work of fiction. Like Esther, Plath won an internship at a New York magazine, only to later lose out on a place for a summer writing programme. This missed opportunity quickened the fall into a lifetime of mental health issues, with multiple suicide attempts and electric shock therapy. However, the book is so much more than harrowing. It is not a book about mental illness, it is a book about a young woman who feels overcome with the way in which life is both so vast, but at the same time so limited.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and […] another fig was Europe and Africa and South America […] and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one, meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”.
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
There is potentially no other passage in a literary work that I have resonated with quite so strongly. It is the crisis of every “gifted and talented” child told that they can achieve anything. The pressure to make something ‘exceptional’ of your life, to choose the right path and choose it quickly — before all the doors close before your eyes. Life, especially as a woman, feels often like a ticking time bomb. We are inundated with rhetoric that turns life into a swiftly emptying sand timer. Talk of ‘biological clocks’ and ‘eggs drying up’ combined with the constant reminders that our youth is slowly but surely draining away, leaving us unwanted and unvalued. Even for staunch feminists like myself, it’s hard to escape the ‘left on the shelf’ mindset that there’s a limited window, for love, marriage, children — all the trappings of domestic bliss. I often feel like I’m stuck between two paths, the want to be a mother, but also to find fulfilment in a career. Having children is in many ways my greatest dream and my greatest fear. What if in having children I lose my identity altogether and become relegated to the role of ‘mother’ instead of ‘person’?
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security […] I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a fourth of July rocket.”
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The image of the rotting fig tree is haunting, but it also made me sigh in relief at the sudden ability to put a concrete label on this deep-rooted fear. Here is Sylvia Plath saying, more eloquently than I ever could, how it feels to be stuck between countless visions of your life. It’s the terrifying moment that signifies the start of adulthood. The realisation that you are responsible for choosing your own path through life. After spending your entire childhood longing for freedom, the second you receive it you realise it can feel like a burden.
“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.
“I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong, […] I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared?”
- Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag
More recently, by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, the exact same idea is expressed. In a vastly different medium, Waller-Bridge has demonstrated that Plath’s fear endures to this day. Being the arbiter of our own lives is terrifying, and deep-down many of us long for someone to just tell us how we should live, how we should make choices that we won’t look back on and regret. How to pick the fig from the tree before they all rot before us. My graduation from university is creeping up on me slowly, and alongside the excitement, I can’t help but feel a sense of dread. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I pick the wrong path and then find myself unable to turn back?
The Bell Jar is ultimately a story about choices. Everyone we meet, every opportunity we turn down, every conversation we have contributed to the moulding and shaping of our life. It’s inescapable, and ultimately we must either come to terms with it or be driven mad by our own indecision. It captures the transition from a ‘gifted’ childhood to an adulthood of feeling both maddeningly ordinary and burdened by the weight of other people’s expectations (“After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort or another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.”). It is very rare to find a book that feels as though it’s looking at you, staring deep into your soul and writing the very words you most need to read. Even if you don’t have that experience reading it, it’s undoubtedly a masterfully written novel, and should be on everyone’s to-be-read pile.