Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar

It can be both beautiful and terrifying to look inside a human soul

I think this was said by DH Lawrence. It is hard to show someone the insides of your soul. Do we dare? Not me. Not one person in the whole world know all about me. We have been trained from childhood onwards to put out only a bright good face to the world and keep our demons to ourselves.

Sylvia Plath, the extraordinary poet, dared to show the world her demons by writing a book about her early days of grappling with mental illness in her first and only novel - The Bell Jar. The protogonist of the novel is Esther, a girl from a small New England town who has studied on scholarships and got straight A's all her life. It starts with her internship at a fashion magazine in New York with 11 other girls from eclectic backgrounds. For the girls, it is a step forward into life, to be able to live in New York for a month at the expense of a magazine.

Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean."
Fever The Collected Poems [Sylvia Plath].

This novel that begins on a note of hope and a promise of a life well spent soon disintegrates as a sensitive Esther is not able to cope with the hurts of life. She can cope with studies and papers and excel at them, but life terrifies her. Soon the month is up and she is back at her small town, with her mother and steps into her first deep depression, followed by an attempt to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call."
Lady Lazarus [Sylvia Plath].

Death eludes her and she finds herself put into a variety of mental institutions. This was the early '50s when electric shocks and unsympathetic doctors actually complicated the state of the patients' mental health. However, after a couple of bad hospitals, Esther's treatment at a swanky mental resort is sponsored by a philanthropic woman.

Even when her mental state is at an ebb, Esther does not stop experiencing life. We all do it, but are not sensitised enough to feel each moment. That is a gift given to Esther - to feel each moment of her life as it walks past her. She gets into the details of her life with Buddy, her boyfriend, her first witnessing of a childbirth, her blank outs, her curious relationship with Joan- who seems more of an alter-ego or a shadow- than a childhood friend. Her detailing is so perfect that you are let into her murky world and she does not spare you the torture she went through. It is like an autopsy of a soul.

"A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—"
Black Rook in Rainy Weather[Sylvia Plath].

Such achingly beautiful lines these are. And the novel too, is full of her quiet gift for words, not flamboyant, but precise and perfect. Kafkaesque - yes, that is term I would use for it, especially as Sylvia Plath seems to start, in terms of timeline, right where Kafka left off.

The novel is also described as a feminist tract because of Esther's rejection of traditional woman's role of marrying and keeping house and having children. In the current times it seems as if Esther was merely trying to assert her individuality in times when it was anachronistic to do so. She was woman ages ahead of her times, one of the catalysts for change, no wonder she is still an icon for a thinking woman.

This above line should be end of this blog with my tribute to all budding writers - especially bloggers - in Slyvia's words. But I wish to discuss just one more thing. I have read about the first sexual experience of another writer as well, Han Suyin. Interestingly, Han Suyin describes a void she felt after her first sex, a nothingness. Sylvia leads us into a realm of pain and hemorrage. It is almost as it they want to cut out the passion that lead up to it, and reject any feminine impulses they felt at the moment. I feel that is what the feminist writers missed out on in their literature, in an attempt to reject all feminine myths, they rejected their own femininity. But I guess, at that time, it was necessary to do that to bring about the change. And for that, all women have to be grateful to them. It is because of their sacrifices that we are able to vote, claim right to be educated alongside men, some of us can lead degenerate lives, be single mothers, marry lesbian lovers, heck, just be ourselves.

"Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door."
Mushrooms [Sylvia Plath].

These lines are for all my fellow bloggers ! Our tribe multiplies as we talk, our foot is in the door.

Ryan Adams singing Sylvia Plath


Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Good review indeed. Liked your end piece "our kind multiplies"...more power to you!

Bouncing-Bubble said...

looks like autopsy of a soul-wonderful line.

Coincidentally, I am reading "My Story" by Kamala Das, an autobiography. Thinking that she's nearing her end, she bares her dark secrets to the world, only to realise later that she fully recovers from her ailment. Anticlimax!

Smita said...

looks like a beautiful book...

Lolvely review beyond doubt!!!!

avdi said...

Anup, Thanks ! I am going to buy the collected poems of Sylvia Plath next. I know most of her poems are available on the net, but it is nicer to hold a book and read it.

My blogroll has grown by leaps and bounds in the past two years, and everywhere I turn I find young and old turning to this mode of writing. In fact, I dont enjoy newspaper and magazine writing any more, blogs are so assertive and uncensored.

avdi said...

Do write about KD when you are through with the book BB. I want to know if it is worth a dekko !

avdi said...

Thank you Smita. It is a beautiful book .

Anand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anand said...

Yep Yep....The way words form into messages and lays it's eggs rite in our brains.

Our foot is in the door....indeed.

avdi said...

Sir Fowl - We are going to take over the world :D

Words are all I have.

couchpapaya said...

what a brilliant dissection avdi! loved the poems running through, some are so eerie, and the gift of words u mentioned is self-explanatory. interesting take ont he feminism. i have not read enough/any feminist literature to have a viewpoint, but i agree, i am grateful to these women for changing the world-view. where wld we be without them!

avdi said...

Thanks CP. I have read about 3/4 book that are described as feminist literature and several stories and articles. At one time, the literature got quite rabid, but then they swung back to moderate. Nowadays an assertive woman is not an anachronism, at least not in urban areas. I was quite surprised that women in Punjab are very strong physically and assertive too, even though their domain is very limited.

Vee said...

Life's a bitch,,, But to actually put together your shit for the world to read is quite gutsy and painful.

This is one I will like to read.

And yeah something on same lines by Bill Plotkin, "Although you might sometimes feel like a cog in a huge machine, that you don't really matter in the great scheme of things, the truth is that you are fully eligible for a meaningful life, a mystical life, a life of the greatest fulfillment and service. To enter that life, you do not need to join a tribal culture or renounce your religious values. You do not necessarily need to quit your job, sell or give away your home, or learn to eat only vegetables. You do, however, need to undertake a journey as joyous and gratifying as it is long and difficult. You will perhaps have to make sacrifices of the greatest sort along the way, but you will not be able to determine what they might be before you start."

avdi said...

Vee tht was a lovely quote. Thanks for putting it here. By our own lights, it is up to us to do the best we can !

Anand said...

Yea???? It's listed in Calisthenics??
So soon? But I put this post up only yesterday??? Shucks. Plagrarism guys r fast. And ,,,,I am being watched. Damn.

Sir Fowl.

Anand said...

Fget the 'C' guys. My que to u is...were u able to do it??? Or were u too chicken to even try??

Anonymous said...

you had my jaws drop towards the end of the review :). Should agree it was an emotional and poetic seemed to be in her shoes..

MS JOY said...

HI Avdi, you had asked abt how to find freelance writing projects. You can register with

Yword said...

Loved the book so much. Loved your heartfelt review of it a lot too :)

Ava Suri said...

Thanks a lot. Yword.

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