I’m opening the books section with The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, a book by a woman. I’ve dealt with depression for many years but I’ve done it pretty quietly since very few people I know understand the complexity of what that means. I wanted to dive into a book that was written by someone who understood that struggle. Despite dying several decades before I was born, Sylvia Plath gets it.
The struggle for Esther (the protagonist) is that there is nothing particularly wrong in her life but she can’t read or sleep. She’s deeply unhappy and no one around her appreciates what her ailment means. This was back in the days of shock treatment and a suicide attempt meant being institutionalized. While I squirmed hearing Esther talk about slashing her wrists, I’m glad there is something out there for ordinary folks to understand what this all means.
I love the quote explaining the title: “If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” Put us in the most perfect place in the world with the best people and our brain chemicals will prevent us from enjoying it.
She also nails the fear every person with a mental illness struggles with: “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” We live our lives knowing that if the medication changes or a big life event happens, we can go back to that dark place. We don’t live in fear but can never forget that is an ever lurking possibility in our lives.
Plath died tragically young, by suicide, leaving this as her only novel. I have her collection of journal entries and her collected poetry on my birthday wish list so we’ll see what happens. I want to explore more of her work because there’s something beautiful in someone’s words reaching across space, time, and death to make someone else feel understood.