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I have heard of Sylvia Plath before, as a poet who died young. I also knew that she was married to Ted Hughes, who was a British Poet Laureate. A few months back I went to a film festival. It was held in a place which was a transformed traditional south Indian house – with a big hall, high roof and tall pillars. The hall was a place where during old times the family, friends and relatives used to sit together and talk and gossip on what happened during the day. The owners had converted this hall into a venue for cultural events – where film festivals and art exhibitions could be conducted and where poetry readings, plays and music concerts could be performed. I liked this place for the informal atmosphere it evoked – one sat on cushions on the floor, like a Nawab and could watch the performance and converse with the artists. It was also easy to have conversations with strangers sitting next to one. I was at this place to watch a movie which was part of a film festival. While waiting for the screening to start, I took a book out of my backpack and started to read it, when one of my neighbours interrupted me and asked me what I was reading. We started having a conversation and he showed me the book he was reading. It was ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath. I knew that Sylvia Plath was a poet but I didn’t know that she had written a novel too. After that day, whenever I went to my favourite bookshop, ‘The Bell Jar’ jumped at me from the shelf everytime, but I avoided it because of what I knew about Sylvia Plath – I thought it would be depressing. But during my last trip to the bookshop, I couldn’t resist it anymore. So I got a copy, and I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the publisher’s website.

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

I am also giving below a brief description of the story taken from the note written for the book by Lois Ames.

The central themes of Sylvia Plath’s early life are the basis for The Bell Jar…These were the events which took place in her life in the summer and autumn of 1953 – at the time of the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, at the time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was forcing his power, at the beginning of the Eisenhower presidency – these were the events which Sylvia Plath reconstructed in The Bell Jar. Years later she described the book she wanted to write :

“The pressures of the fashion magazine world which seems increasingly superficial and artificial, the return home to the dead summer world of a suburb of Boston. Here the cracks in her (the heroine, Esther Greenwood’s) nature which had been held together as it were by the surrounding pressures of New York widen and gape alarmingly. More and more her warped view of the world around – her own vacuous domestic life, and that of her neighbours – seems the one right way of looking at things.”

For Sylvia then came electroshock therapy and finally her well-publicized disappearance, subsequent discovery, and consequent hospitalization for psychotherapy and more shock treatment. She wrote : “A time of darkness, despair, disillusion – so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be – symbolic death, and numb shock – then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration.”


What I think

I found ‘The Bell Jar’ quite fascinating. The first half of the story describes the experiences of a small town girl in glitzy New York and the second half takes on a bleak tone and describes the girl descending a slippery mental slope. There are beautiful passages throughout the book, though many of my favourite ones are there in the sunny, first-half of the book.

I liked Sylvia Plath’s voice which came out of the book – conversational, direct, honest. Frances McCullough says this in her foreword to the book :  “…her voice has such intensity, such a direct edge to it. Almost everything Plath wrote in her short life….has the quality, the immediacy of a letter just opened. It’s heartbreaking to think of what she would have written, what wisdom and maturity would have brought to this stunning voice.” Very eloquently put and very true.

Sylvia Plath died young – she committed suicide when she was thirty years old. It was a tragic end to a budding poet and novelist. I searched a bit on this in different places and this is what I found :

  • Plath’s marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Assia Wevill, and the couple separated in late 1962.
  • …by the time The Bell Jar came out in London, Plath was in extremis; her marriage to poet Ted Hughes was over, she was in panic about money, and had moved to a bare flat in London with her two small children in the coldest British winter in a hundred years. All three of them had the flu, there was no phone, and there was no help with child care.
  • Plath took her own life after she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.
  • Plath’s suicide on February 11, 1963 brought her instant fame in England.
  • After her death, Ted Hughes, who inherited the copyright on all her work, published and unpublished…
  • As Plath’s widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath’s personal and literary estates. He oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1966). He also claimed to have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last few months together. In his foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, he defends his actions as a consideration for the couple’s young children.
  • Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath’s last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)”
  • “It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.”
  • In the realms of literary criticism and biography published after her death, the debate concerning Plath’s literary estate very often resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and those who side with Hughes. Hughes has been accused of attempting to control the estate for his own ends although royalties from Plath’s poetry was placed into a trust account for their two children, Frieda and Nicholas.
  • On 25 March 1969, six years after Plath’s suicide by asphyxiation from a gas stove, Assia Wevill (the woman for whom Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath) committed suicide in the same way. Wevill also killed her child, Alexandra Tatiana Elise (nicknamed Shura), the four-year-old daughter of Hughes, born on 3 March 1965.
  • Plath’s gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard bears the inscription “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by some of Plath’s supporters who have chiseled the name “Hughes” off it. This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes left Plath…
  • After their mother’s death, Ted Hughes took over the care of his two children, and raised them with his second wife, Carol, on their farm in Devon after their marriage in 1970.
  • On March 16, 2009, Nicholas (son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath) hanged himself in his home in Alaska at the age 47. According to his sister Frieda Hughes, Nicholas had been depressed for quite some time.

It is a sad story of a once beautiful family.

I have one comment on Ted Hughes’ role in publishing Sylvia Plath’s manuscripts. If they had separated because of Hughes having an affair, and she had committed suicide because she was depressed (which is how it looks), what moral right does Hughes have to inherit her literary estate? If he had been fair, even if he had inherited Plath’s manuscripts legally, shouldn’t he have hired a neutral editor and given the complete manuscripts to this editor rather than himself taking over the role of the editor and going on to burn one of Plath’s journals? Isn’t it unfair that she died of depression which descended on her partly because of him, and he benefited by it? What do you think?

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.

“What do you have in mind after you graduate?”
“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.
It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.

Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the holes the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr.Manzi’s special red chalk.

…the streets were gay and fuming with rain. It wasn’t the kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain I imagine they must have in Brazil. It flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of steam writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete.

I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.
It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.
This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself.
And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs.Willard’s kitchen mat.
Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon…my father said to her, “Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves”? – and from that day on my mother never had a minute’s peace.
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

(Comment : This passage reminded me of some of the movies I have seen which have a similar theme – ‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘A Special Day’ (‘Una Giornata Particolare’ in Italian) and ‘Mona Lisa Smile’)

My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you.

A heavy naughtiness pricked through my veins, irritating and attractive as the hurt of a loose tooth.

And when Mrs.Bannister held the cup to my lips, I fanned the hot milk out on my tongue as it went down, tasting it luxuriously, the way a baby tastes its mother.

You can also find one of my favourite passages from the book, about the pleasures of a hot bath, here.

Final Thoughts

I liked Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, though the second part of the book was a bit bleak and depressing. I liked Plath’s voice and her descriptions and the images her prose evokes throughout the book. There is an audio version of the book read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I would like to listen to it sometime. I would also like to try reading some of Plath’s poems and watch the movie ‘Sylvia’ which is based on her life (it has Gwyneth Paltrow playing the role of Sylvia Plath).

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