Smash the Bell Jar
Before reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, I was led to believe it was a book about one woman's experience with depression,
Oh, what a simplistic explanation I had going in! Had I known the depths of this story, the only novel Plath ever published, I'd of it read it much, much earlier in life. But then again, books have this magical way of finding us when we need them (whether we realize it and accept the call to read them or not).
The Bell Jar is the story of a nineteen-year-old Esther Greenwood, a well-off undergrad from suburban Boston who gets an internship at a "women's magazine" in the early 50s. She wants to become a poet, which means working and having dreams other than the cookie-cutter housewife and stay at home mom. During her time in the "real world," as she is getting a taste for the man's world and learning how to navigate it, she is sexually assaulted and, not surprisingly, it profoundly changes her.
She sinks into a depression so unrelenting she can't write or "shake it off" and she is sent to an psychiatric institution where she's given shock treatment therapy. It doesn't work. She tries to unalive herself with sleeping pills. It doesn't work. The sexual assault is never revealed during "treatment."
This is not a story about depression. It's the admission of how her life changed in the course of a night and how being sexually assaulted stole the light in this bright, young lady's life. Her loss of the ability to write (which can absolutely happen during a severe depressive episode) represents the theft of her voice the night of the assault and every single day afterwards. Left, without words.
Knocked down a peg.
Critics have argued that while The Bell Jar story and Esther are fictional, they are highly reminiscent of Plath's own life and experience with depression, which was always alluded to as the culprit behind her death by suicide. The book has even been labeled "semi autobiographical."
It was the last thing she wrote. She was scared to have her own name on it, she must have known how powerful it could be or maybe her husband Ted Hughes, who has been accused of abuse in written letters from Plath, and her mother, who isn't mommy dearest by any means, convinced her to go with the pseudonym. Maybe they didn't need to; she was doing it to protect them all.
The reason I suspect Ted and mother, though, is because they are said to have prevented her actual name from being on the book until long enough after her death for them to have distanced themselves from her- and her truth. The book was released in 1963 under "Victoria Lucas." One month later, the world loses the brilliant and talented and courageous Plath. Four years later in 1967, it's republished under her name but still it wasn't until 1971 that it was published in America—and then banned (and unbanned).
What was this woman trying to tell her readers? Did she ever think her story would survive this long and still have something to new to say? Did she know one day I'd pick up the book and it would tell me what to do next?
I heard you.
In 2019, I heard you calling to me through the pages as I witnessed what you went through. Maybe it's not exact, and that doesn't matter, but you made the brave choice to try to explain. To warn others. To stir some shit up. I applaud you.
And now I'm here to smash the bell jar for us both.
It's time for me to continue the work you started.