Both times I read The Bell Jar, there was a moment that I was afraid, either some point in the narrative or the moment I’d put the book down. I’m afraid because I identify with Esther.
When I first read it, my friend Maggie described the novel as something so encompassing that you fell into Esther’s logic and keep believing that her actions are logical. By the time you realize that you are afraid of what Esther is going to do, you’re so far down the rabbit hole that you can’t really escape her logic.
That has perfectly summed up my experience both times. Even though this past time, I remembered the plot—namely the famous “I am I am I am” swimming scene—I still got sucked into Esther’s story.
And that’s what a good story does, I think. It moves out of the way so that you can just get so immersed in it that you forget it’s a construction and you feel that you inhabit the world as or alongside these characters. Plath does that in her masterful writing, and it pulls me in every time.
However, this connection felt especially relevant/ important/ scary this past time through the book. When I first read The Bell Jar, I was only a high school, and a lot of this stuff—getting an internship, trying to find a potential husband, going out into the real world—was so far off in my future. Now, though, I’m a senior in college, and all three of these things are like boxes piled up in a room that I’ve been living in for years but am only now just realizing is cluttered and that these boxes could fall over and crush me.
That is to say, I’m at the point in my life that Esther was at, slightly past it, but more alongside her than not.
And 1) that is kind of empowering because I’m not alone in this way but 2) it is equal parts terrifying because there are so many things that could go wrong.
Esther doesn’t “break down” because of one, big, cataclysmic event. It’s this little chipping away at her piece by piece. It’s a combination of the pressures of work, the stupidity of her sort-of-boyfriend, and, the expectation society has on her to be pretty and smart and okay. It all stacks up on her until he feels that all is lost.
But it’s not.
At least, I don’t think it is.
That’s the other thing about The Bell Jar: I love it and think it’s one of the most important books ever written, but I’m still not quite sure how to read the ending. I’m not sure if things are going to be “okay.” The first time I read the novel, I was sure that she wouldn’t be, but this time, I was less sure of that. The ending felt slightly more hopeful to me, and I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, but I know that was how I felt. It wasn’t a happy ending, but I didn’t feel totally like all was lost.
Maybe that’s the point, though, with this ambiguity? Life is full of so many uncertainties, and this book feels so true to life in so many ways that I don’t see why it would stop being true at the ending.
I’m sorry if this reading seems to simplistic or if this wasn’t quite what you needed to hear right now. However, I’ve struggled a lot with the “point” of literature and writing this past week, and I’m still struggling to figure that out for me.
What I think I’m coming to conclude—as many have before me—is that these books and readings are just little segments of life that can help you think more complexly and imagine others more fully. Hopefully, as we move forward, books will continue to be helpful, healing, and informative to us.
I hope that you’re safe and as well as you can be right now.