As with The Crying of Lot 49, Olive Editions have gotten me to pick up books that were on that “yeah… I should read that!” list but that I’d never gotten around to seriously considering. The Bell Jar is definitely one of those books – I’ve heard it described as one of the most important pieces of feminine literature and my (admittedly limited) exposure to “important feminist literature” has never been all that pleasant. Sylvia Plath, though, was a poet – and while I don’t necessarily love poetry, poets tend to bring an interesting tone to their novels.
The introduction, foreward, thingie for this edition called this book “the female Catcher in the Rye.” It’s a pretty good analogy – both books deal with a detached, young protagonist who can’t really get a grip on their world in the 1950s, as things change all around them. However, Catcher in the Rye is one of the most overrated books in the English language, so that isn’t a ringing endorsement. I’d almost say that Catcher aspired to be a male The Bell Jar – this is a much better book.
It is apparently auto-biographical. Plath’s mom didn’t want it published while she was alive because she looked bad in it and, well, I can’t blame her. Plath was pretty honest about the people in her life as she experienced them. The warning signs, of course, were all there in this novel. I’m surprised that more people weren’t queued into that, but then it was a different time. This novel would have been snapped up if it were written today but it was coolly received at first (by publishers).
The simplistic tone is maybe the best part of the whole thing. Plath’s voice is just… natural. Easy, comfortable – but not soothing. That’s a word I would not use. She’s honest. This is what she experienced and while those experiences are at times wildly unsettling (suicide attempts, institutionalization, bad sexual encounters…) they’re never treated with hysteria. Perhaps that was Plath’s whole point with the “bell jar” concept; she mentions it repeatedly, especially while institutionalized – this idea that she is living under a bell jar and everything is trapped inside and swirling around in a thick sort of haze. That haze permeates the novel and everything feels rather soupy, but in a narcotic sort of way. The moments of clarity that do come are crisp but not sharp, like at the ending (which, to me, was less of an ending and more of a pause. Perhaps, had she lived longer, there would have been a “sequel” of sorts, like Philip Roth’s semi-autobiographical novels).
This novel is definitely a “first novel” novel. It has some issues, with pacing and with a sometimes-too-strong push to define the narrative voice. It is also quite sad – there’s no doubt about that, it is quite sad. Sure, its funny as hell at times but the sort of funny that itself brings a little sadness.
To Sum Up: an engaging and well-written story that feels as though it, too, was trapped under a bell jar. Definitely a good read, but you want to take a breath of fresh air after finishing it (both literally and literarily). I wish Miss Plath had stayed with us longer – I’d have enjoyed reading further novels by her.