What I knew about The Bell Jar before I ever read it was that the book was a downer. It is Plath's autobiographical novel about her breakdown and attempted suicide when she was in college. So yeah, it's not the most cheerful subject, and it's all the more heart-breaking because the book ends on a pretty hopeful note, but as we all know, Plath committed suicide in 1963.
Still, I'm really glad I read this book. I tried once before and gave up before the main character Esther attempted suicide, but I read it because my friend Julie has organized a book club and this is the first selection. When I expressed my concern at being able to finish the book, Julie encouraged me to keep on, if for not other reason than because Plath's writing is gorgeous. She really is a master of simile.
This is my favorite section of the book:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the top of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which fig I would choose. I wanted each and everyone 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 back, and, one by one, the plopped to the ground at my feet (85-86).
But you also have to admire this passage, where Esther describes seeing her first live, naked man (her boyfriend Buddy): Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed (76).
Despite years of conditioning by romance novels, I'm sure most people's experiences are more akin to Esther's than to a heaving-bosomed beauty from a romance novel.
One thing I wonder is how much my perception of the novel is influenced by the biographical information of the author. The book ends on rather a hopeful note. Esther returns to school, if not cured then at least better able to manage. And while the sections of Esther's confinement to an institution are depressing, they aren't that horrible. They aren't particularly graphic. But knowing that this is autobiographical and knowing how Plath ended her life, for me, it colors my reading of this novel in a way I can't shake.