Fiction — audiobook. Read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. HarperAudio, 2016. Originally published 1963. 7 hours, 24 minutes. Library copy.
Sylvia Plath’s novel opens with her main character, Esther Greenwood, in the midst of spending the summer in New York City. Having won a fashion magazine’s contest, Esther is being mentored by editors and writers on both her chosen field and the state of her complexion — a combination of feminism and femininity — as she and the eleven other winners of the contest are escorted to glamorous luncheons, ballets, and theater performances around the city. They are living their best life — a “goals” state popular among those who are Esther’s age today.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” (pg. 237)
Yet the experience is a lesson in contradictions for Esther. The glamorous luncheon serving the crab meat and caviar that Esther only experienced on clandestine visits to the country club where her grandfather worked ends in food poisoning. The adventurous Doreen, a fellow winner of the contest, leaves Esther anxious and disoriented and unhappily recognizing the parts of herself that are far more like those of the often derided “Pollyanna Cowgirl”, Betsy, of their group. And, ultimately, while the invitation to attend is recognition of her skills of a writer, any self-confidence fostered by the experience her writing is destroyed when she returns home and learns she was not accepted to a writing course in Cambridge.
The rejection, the jarring reintegration into life in the Boston suburbs begin to amplify Esther’s feelings of alienation and depression. Her mother is eager for her to learn stenography; a skill that her mother believes will help her in supporting herself as she waits to marry Buddy Willard, the son of a fellow church member who is studying to be a doctor and spending his summer convalescing at a tuberculous home in upstate New York. Neither option — marriage or career — appeals to Esther, and her depression deepens further and further until she decides suicide is the only answer.
“I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.” (pg. 182)
Attempts on her own life are unsuccessful, however, and Esther’s mother moves her from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital in the hopes that someone may be able to shock Esther — literally, as is the case at more than one hospital — into being her old self again. The rest of the novel is dedicated to Esther’s interactions with mental health professionals as well as her recollections of Buddy as she makes choices that are the exact opposite of what Buddy and society at large expect from her.
The slow, creeping tone of Plath’s novel — perfectly encapsulated in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s narration — as she explores the deterioration of Esther’s mental state is, of course, the element the receives the most attention during discussions of Plath’s novel. I’m afraid my thoughts here will follow suit because I found the way Plath described her character’s mindset, the way Esther remains largely detached from both the action around her and the thoughts in her own head to be the gem of the novel.
“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starring to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” (pg. 77)
This detachment creates an interesting conundrum because while I certainly understand what it means to be paralyzed by the choices one has, by a perch in the imaginary fig tree, I found myself wondering if I could trust Esther as a narrator. This uneasiness and suspicion thus becomes an indictment about our views towards those with mental illness.
I mean, what reason did I have not to trust Esther as she shared her story? There certainly isn’t a moment that stands out in my mind where I felt I shouldn’t trust Esther except the knowledge that she’s mentally ill. Yet that exception, that excuse leads even Esther herself to wonder if the experiences and interactions she has during the course of her “treatments” really did occur.
“Sometimes I wondered if I had made Joan up. Other times I wondered if she would continue to pop in at every crisis of my life to remind me of what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.” (pg. 219)
The idea that Joan, an acquaintance who is admitted to the same asylum, will continue to be a reminder contradicts Esther’s mother’s assertion that they will pretend this was all a bad dream. It revokes the possibility of a happy ending at the conclusion of the novel, and instead leaves the reader with the reality that a relapse is always possible.
Which, sadly, was true for Plath, who took her life a month after the novel’s publication in 1963 and for whom the audiobook asserts is the biographical basis of the novel. An assertion that is easy to believe given how perfectly Plath’s manages to encapsulate her character’s psychosis in her one and only novel.
The Classics Club:
I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. This deadline has since come and past, but I am still trying to work through my list. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post or project post.