Friday, May 18, 2018
The Bell Jar (Modern Classics) 1st Edition by Sylvia Plath (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Yes, indeed, this is an intensely harrowing but still subtle odyssey through the battle with mental illness. Sylvia Plath’s timeless epic still rings true today…Esther Greenwood, our fictional protagonist, is unfortunately only a veiled cover for Plath’s real world disease which reached its nadir in 1963 when she took her own life at the young age of thirty. And it’s this volume, her only full length novel, that explicitly but also with a seamless literary touch, conjures the deep emotional and physical conflicts borne from this terrible affliction. Within, we follow Esther on a slow slide into insanity with such nuance and foreboding that the reader is almost compelled to believe that it is all true. And given Plath’s heartbreaking outcome, the literary debate lingers on as to if this is, in fact, that shrouded memoir.
The story opens with Esther in New York, during the summer of her collegiate years, working and modeling for a prestigious NY magazine. Through many obscure and complex observations, we slowly get a picture of her; Boston suburbanite, Smith college-type on scholarship, the world literally at her feet. But it is, still at these beginning stages, the random comment or action that begins to creep in to her personality that makes the reader aware that something is not quite right. Sure enough, as we move on, Esther becomes more and more un-hinged, doing things far outside of her personality.
Soon we reach a point where she attempts suicide and discusses suicide as the answer to get her out from “under the Bell Jar.” The literary ease with which we go from NY magazine model to suicide victim is stark…I found myself having to put the book down occasionally to internalize what I’d just read. This is really an amazing ability that Plath had…flowing from one emotion to the other without noticing until the full force of Esther’s actions take hold. Where the first third of the novel is fairly light, the last two thirds are riveting, very difficult to put down. It’s very hard to understand how Plath had difficulty getting this work published…only under a pseudonym in 1963 London and not until 1971 in the U.S. after it had been turned down, harshly, by publisher Harper & Row. Today it is printed and re-printed in many languages and enjoys its well-deserved place among the literary classics.
To summarize, if one decides to delve into the classics, you can’t go wrong with this work. Dark, even frightful at times but always flowing and well written, The Bell Jar is both a stark referendum on mental illness and an amazing reading experience.