The Bell Jar
Harper Perennial Modern Classic
I couldn’t tell you the year I read The Bell Jar, I couldn’t tell you how old I was, nor the season. But I could tell you what I was wearing the first time I opened the pages and fell deeply in love with Sylvia Plath. I had this two toned pink sweater with decorative snowflakes, I wore it over and over again from fall to winter I lived in that sweater. Finally, my mother threw it out and in retrospect she was right to do so. It was old and ratty, stretched out in all the wrong places, too small in all the other places. But I loved that sweater. It was soft and comfortable, lived in. So it’s rather fitting that my entrance into Sylvia Plath’s writing coincides with the removal of this sweater. From the moment I read the first sentence, It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” That first sentence was beautiful, cryptic, haunting, open. I feel the way about this book the way that I felt about that sweater. Plath’s writing immediately felt lived in, both particular yet generous.
I know I was a teenager when I read The Bell Jar, full of angst and emotion, unable to truly process or understand what was happening to me both physically and emotionally. I didn’t know what I was doing. Just like all other teenagers I felt alone and unsure, but just like other teenagers I found something to guide me, to show me how to steer through the storm. As I read through chapter after chapter of the The Bell Jar I felt connected, curious, and eager. Each time I go back to the book these feelings prevail yet they are far more complex than they were the first time.
You see, so often readers and those aware of The Bell Jar mistake the telling, mistake Esther Greenwood for Sylvia Plath. This is her story, that much is true but The Bell Jar is by no means an autobiography. It’s confessional. We are given small tweaked tellings of Plath’s life by means of Esther, we are invited in to hear a story not the story. We are asked to listen to Esther’s story. Stories of mental health, cantankerous relationships, and confusion. In a time when these stories were scarce at best and nonexistent at worst. Presently, there is still a lack of these stories yet they are gaining prevalence. Hyperbole and a half and The Bloggess openly discuss mental health and living in and with it. While Plath was not necessarily the first to write in this confessional style she certainly advanced it by means of her poetry, short stories, and of course The Bell Jar.
The confessional style of the The Bell Jar continues to affect me, consistently offers me that lived in feeling. More so, it’s influenced my own writing and performance work. I have always been a reserved person. I jokingly refer to myself as a robot claiming I don’t have feelings. It’s always been particularly hard for me to share my emotions, what I am feeling and why, how it’s manifested. Plath gave me an avenue to artistically share and work through my own experiences. A way to write about my own dare I say feelings in a way that to me seems both overt and subtle. I’ve written and staged several performances surrounding the unfolding and effects of my divorce among other what I would consider personally sensitive experiences. Without Plath’s confessional guidance as well as Joan Didion’s I would not have fully possessed the courage, the vulnerability to write let alone perform on my divorce. Plath showed me how to use my voice, she showed me and continues to show me how to be vulnerable, she gently nudges me, reminding me I am one tough gal, that my voice matters. That it matters especially when it surrounds a topic that isn’t always comfortable to share or hear. In a patriarchal structure, Plath showed me how to nimbly circumvent the system. She continues to show me how to outwit the jar, how to blossom in the bell.
I didn’t want this to be a love letter to Sylvia or The Bell Jar but I suppose that’s inescapable. I suppose when something shapes you with such instrinisticnesity it’s unavoidable. I do love Sylvia Plath, I do love The Bell Jar. I love what they’ve taught me, I love how they continue to teach me, I love the unabashed tenacity of the story, I love how unafraid Plath was to be confessional, especially in a time when women weren’t supposed to be confessional and still really aren’t fully given this space. I love just as Esther was watching her clothes drift through the hot sultry New York night air, flowing above the skyscrapers my own ill fitted sweater was unraveling before me. I love what I receive from the The Bell Jar and what it allows me to put back into the world, creatively.