Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. Happy Mental Health Awareness Week!

In 1990, Congress set aside the first week of October for mental health awareness week.  Not many people know this, although we all know the pink of breast cancer.  I sometimes wonder what the color for mental health awareness week would be.  Maybe muddy brown, since what those of us with mental illnesses see are through such a screwed up prism that the colors all blend together.  I talk more about my own mental illness at my brother and sister in law’s blog, the entry for today, October 11th.

(Side note, I also now am writing a column for Sage Magazine talking about books as well.  You can find them here.  I towards the end, writing about Jane Eyre.)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, I chose to read The Bell Jar.  I am ashamed to admit that I come to Plath later than I should have.  I was very into Anne Sexton in college and still love her.  For some reason, I had to be different and decided to not even try Plath, that I disliked her.  In college, in 1996, I was in London on a literary tour and did see Yeats house, where Plath killed herself.

Sue Monk Kidd is the only author who listed The Bell Jar in their top ten.

I liked The Bell Jar.  A lot.  I haven’t seen such an accurate description of what the inside of your head can feel like while going insane since reading Madness, a memoir about bipolar by Marya Hornbacher.  The Bell Jar is a memoir written as fiction of Plath’s own breakdown while in college.  The story starts out with the main character Esther in New York City, having been chosen as a winner of a fashion magazine’s contest, that brought her and 11 other girls to New York City to work at the magazine for a month.

Esther has been a high achiever all her life.  Head of committees.  Straight A student even in subjects that she couldn’t really “get”, like physics.  She’s sort of involved with a med student, Buddy, who is currently in a sanatorium recovering from TB.  In New York City, there is all the pressure of keeping it together.  You get a small whiff of the madness to come in small bits and pieces.  But especially at the end of her trip when she decides to throw all her clothes that she had bought while working in the city into the sky.

“It was my last night.  I grasped the bundle I carried and pulled at a pale tail.  A strapless elasticized slip which, in the course of wear, had lost its elasticity, slumped into my hand.  I waved it, like a flag of truce once, twice…The breeze caught it, and I let it go.  A white flake floated out into the night, and began its slow descent.  I wondered on what street or rooftop it would come to rest.  I tugged at the bundle again.  The wind made an effort, but failed, and a batlike shadow sank toward the roof garden of the penthouse opposite.  Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York”.

She arrives home and sinks into a depression, a fit of craziness.

“I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head.  But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night.  I couldn’t see the point of getting up.  I had nothing to look forward to”.

She decides to kill herself.

Her first attempt fails.   She tries to cut her wrists.

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it.  It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped over my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.”

Then she attempts to let the sea take her at tide.

“I waited, as if the sea could make my decision for me.  A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.  My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.  I picked up my pocketbook and started back over the cold stones to where my shoes kept their vigil in the violet light.”

Then an attempt at hanging.

“Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash”.

Then another attempt at drowning, this one by swimming out and trying it that way.

“I dived, and dived again, and each time popped up like a cork.  The gray rock mocked me, bobbing on the water as easy as a lifebuoy.  I knew when I was beaten.  I turned back.”

Then the final attempt

“At first nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes.  The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down.  The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life.  Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep”.

After this, she is placed in a mental institution.  She fails there, so a benefactress sends her to a “posh” one.  There she receives treatment, including finally electroshock therapy.  She finally improves.

I think the reason I loved this book was the language Plath uses.  She describes her illness with perfect metaphor.  It does feel the way she says it does, but she says it in a way that really drives it home.

Someone I know once said that you can tell a novelist who is also a poet, by the language used.  I believe this to be the case with Plath.

This final quote says it all I think.

“A bad dream.  To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”

I highly recommend this to anyone who knows a friend or loved one that has a mental illness and has endured the effects of it.  This book will give you a better understanding of what happened than any study, or website written with basic information.  This book puts you directly into the sensation of it.

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One response to “Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. Happy Mental Health Awareness Week!

  1. Pingback: Howl by Allen Ginsberg | Eleven and a Half Years of Books

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