Title: The Bell Jar | Author: Sylvia Plath
Published: 1963; Pages: 288
Genre: Fiction (semi-autobiographical)
Title: Belzhar | Author: Meg Wolitzer | Narrator: Jorjeana Marie
Published: 2014; Pages: 272 | Audio Duration: 8 hours
Genre: Fiction (YA)
I first discovered Sylvia Plath as a college freshman when I was required to read her poem “Daddy.” Since then she popped up here and there in various college courses and I was so enamored by her poetry that I bought a volume of her collected poems.
Sadly reading poetry on my own isn’t quite as fun as digging in with a class, so this book has gone mostly unread except for a few indulgent moments here and there. Her only published novel, The Bell Jar, escaped my reading attention, though.
I don’t remember when I first added The Bell Jar to my shelf, but it was within the last couple of years and was promptly forgotten. I saw the Sylvia Plath biopic with Gwyneth Paltrow, but it wasn’t until I listened to Pain, Parties, Work two years ago that I knew I needed to bump The Bell Jar up on my list.
So in typical Trish fashion, two years went by before I finally picked it up. And now I’m wondering why I waited so long! Because as people will tell you, The Bell Jar might be best read while you are in your twenties. Or possibly even before then.
The Bell Jar is a story of Esther Greenwood who spends a summer in New York on scholarship working for a woman’s magazine. Near the end of the summer, her world cracks open and after an attempt on her life she is institutionalized. I knew going into this book that the story was autobiographical, but after Pain, Parties, Work (which focuses on that summer in New York), I realized just how parallel Esther and Plath’s stories are.
While I wasn’t blown away by The Bell Jar (again, I think it would have been more impacting if I had read it a decade ago), I appreciated the candid look into the mind of a young woman who struggles with reality. I’ve had many of the thoughts that she has and have had periods of my own depression. It also struck me that Plath was 30 when she took her life…three years younger than I am now.
How impossibly young she was. How devastating. I cannot imagine the pain and torment she must have been experiencing. Depression is a deep dark hole and it’s hard to dig out of once you are within its hold. On the other hand, it is impossible to understand the depths of depression when not in the midst of it.
After I finished The Bell Jar, I decided to listen to Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer as a companion. I didn’t realize the two were connected until someone mentioned it (get it? Bell Jar – Belzhar) and I was curious how the two fit together. When compared the two together, I can’t help but be incredibly let down by Belzhar.
Belzhar is also the story of a young woman, Jam, who is institutionalized in a sense—during a period of deep depression after the death of her boyfriend, she is enrolled at The Wooden Barn, a boarding school where she can hopefully heal. During her time here she is selected for a class based on the works of Sylvia Plath.
I’m going to break my own rules and get a little spoilery from here on out. As I was just beginning Belzhar, another reader noted that this book might have some paranormal aspects. Seemed unfitting at the time of my reading, but sure enough the members of this special topics class were all about to visit their past through the process of journaling. Like actually physically be in the past.
Magical Realism isn’t a deal breaker for me and I didn’t think this was so incredibly far-fetched for me to write it off. In fact, I liked the idea of these young adults being able to glimpse back at the event that had so shaped their future to hopefully gain closure. I was totally onboard.
And here I get really spoilery, so really, if you don’t want to know…jump ship now! Totally onboard, that is, until we found out that the reason why Jam is so emotionally tortured is that she deluded herself into thinking she was in a relationship with this boy who did not like her in return and so she mentally concocted his death. What?
For some reason this revelation made me feel cheated, though even as I type this I feel as though I’m being unfair and that Jam’s misery was her own…and maybe that’s the point. That it is tough for others to understand the depth of the way that we process emotional circumstances. That when we are in a bell jar, our world is so incredibly distorted. As Esther says, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream” (237).
What causes us to crack up, for our world to come tumbling down? How can we make sense of our world when we are living inside of a bell jar?
While I’m not sure The Bell Jar and Belzhar make perfect companion pieces, it was an interesting experience reading them in such close proximity. And maybe Plath’s deep introspection (through Esther’s eyes) is what made Jam’s situation pale in comparison–Belzhar doesn’t quite dig as deep under the surface.
A small note on the Belzhar audio: Jorjeana Marie does a great job reading the first person narrative and it definitely enhanced my reading experience. As I often do, I listened on 1.25x speed.
The Bell Jar, Belhzar. Have you read either of these books? What’s a book you’ve read that effectively portrays mental health issues?