Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Walking In Her Shoes - A Review of “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

The fact that I read and review so many books is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people often assume I am more knowledgeable about literature of all kinds than I really am. So, I am often greeted with, “You surely must have read ‘Bel Ami’ by Guy De Mauppasant!” Then, I have to mumble words of apology for my Neanderthal lack of sophistication and admit to not even having heard of the book! On the other hand, I get to add "Bel Ami" to my list of books to read!

It was just such an interchange about books-worth-reading that led to my decision to pick up a copy of Sylvia Plath’s, “The Bell Jar,” from a used book table in Greenwich Village. I was vaguely aware of Plath and her tragic life, but did not know many details of her story and her one novel. She lived part of her life just around the corner from the location of my office in the town of Wellesley, so I felt a geographic connection to the author and to her overtly autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into madness and despair.

I felt another connection, as well. She recounts in vivid detail her experience, as a young woman, of undergoing electroshock and insulin shock treatments – the treatments of choice in the 50’s for those experiencing a “nervous breakdown.” As a child, one of my favorite people in the world was a great aunt who had endured the same kind of mental roller coaster ride that Plath narrates so hauntingly. “Dedda,” as she was know within the extended family, lived a life in many ways in parallel with that of Plath and her fictional alter ego, Esther Greenwood. As a young woman, she suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, was hospitalized, and underwent a series of debilitating shock treatments.

Reading Plath’s plangent account of Esther’s journey through hell allowed me to feel that I was in some manner walking in Dedda’s shoes. She has been gone for almost twenty years, but I think of her fondly every day. And I think of her fondly because of a significant difference between the path that she walked and the one that Plath ultimately chose to follow. Rather than succumbing to a despair that would lead to a successful suicide attempt, Dedda turned her experience with brokenness into a driving passion to reach out with compassionn and love to other broken souls. The second half of her life was a frenetic sprint to touch as many lives as possible – often sacrificing sleep and a normal schedule in order to find enough time to visit the sick, bereaved, distraught, unhinged and institutionalized. She became my role model for networking. But, I digress. More about Dedda and her remarkable life another time. . .

One of the themes that jumped out at me from the pages of Plath’s novel was the all-encompassing sense of strangulation that Plath felt as a young women growing up in an era and a culture that delimited the roles that a woman was expected and allowed to assume. She despaired of becoming someone’s wife and mother - only to place within the suffocating isolation of a bell jar her brain and her career aspirations.

“I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband. It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.

This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself.”
(Pages 68-69)

Stylistically, Plath chose to write the first paragraph above as a single, run-on sentence – emblematic of her feeling that she envisioned that such an existence would be nothing less than a life sentence of cruel and unusual punishment.

I am not sure, as a white male, I will ever be able fully to appreciate the frustration of what it must be like to have one’s choices in life narrowly delimited by one’s gender or skin color, but Plath’s claustrophobic “Bell Jar” takes me a few more steps down that path towards understanding. For that reason alone, this is a book worth reading, reflecting upon and sharing with others.