‘If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed…’
Due to my wife’s undying love for Jean Rhys, I have read a number of novels about a sad woman drinking herself to death. I like Rhys’ work, but there is no denying that it is often a tough read. I’d ignorantly tarred The Bell Jar with the same dark brush. Sylvia Plath is, afterall, the saddest of all the sad women. Once again, I was very, very wrong. The Bell Jar is a visceral and explosive account of clinical depression and suicidal tendancies. Plath’s confessional style gives her only novel an air of timelessness and universality that makes clear the reasons why it remains one of the most important works of the 20th century.
Sylvia Plath Esther Greenwood is a talented young writer enduring/enjoying an internship at a fashion magazine in New York City. When Esther goes home for the summer and is rejected from a writing course, things begin to spiral out of control remarkably quickly. Plath includes graphic descriptions of her suicide attempts, failed electroconvulsive therapy and rampant paranoia in a work that is as unsettling as it is powerful. Her constant low level anxiety will resonant with pretty much everyone that isn’t a cold, unfeeling android, but is her description of more extreme mental illness that really hits home. Plath’s matter of fact prose has echoes of Hemingway, but hers is a style all of her own. It’s a great tragedy that this is her only major novel following her cruely inevitable suicide at the tragically young age of 30.
I have spent a lifetime listening to ‘confessional’ music (mostly shitty emo bands) in an attempt to find something real. A work that cannot hide it’s truthfulness even if it wanted to. Weezer’s flawed masterpiece Pinkerton is one such example, as are films such as Manchester by the Sea or Blue Valentine. The Bell Jar is another such work, but of course it came before everything else. It is not the first book to wear its bloody heart, still pumping, on its sleeve, but it does feel like a prototype for something. A howl in the darkness that has the power to move anyone. It also reads like a eulogy knowing what happened to Plath later.
The Bell Jar is a book of ruinous devastation and starry eyed hope. A masterpiece.