When I was in college, I had little to no interest in reading a lot of the literature for classes. Occasionally, I would run across something that I enjoyed (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; Heart of Darkness; even “The Rape of the Lock,” for crimony’s sake), but for the most part, I slogged through much of what I had to read. That I was majoring in English is what makes this statement such a tragedy, but somehow, The Bell Jar never entered the curriculum,. If it had, I likely would have glossed over it like I did everything else.
Since then, I’ve taken more of an appreciation of the literature I never read, and I now understand a lot more of the different layers of fiction and story, and symbolism and theme. As such, I find myself more interested in literature, even though I’m still primarily a reader of genre fiction. The Bell Jar came through the library, and it seemed interesting enough, so I decided to read it.
The story is definitely compelling, and as you read it, you’ll see a lot of evidence in Plath’s background as a poet seeping in to her narrative. She makes her character likable and sympathetic, which is weird, because by the same token, she’s a little pathetic. It all ties together (the bouts of pathos are tied up with her illness, making it hard to fault her for it), but there are times when you want to reach through the pages and shake her, because she’s so frustrating. In the end, though, you find yourself rooting for her, wanting her to get better and lead as close to a normal life as possible. It comes together well, and I have to give Plath credit for keeping my attention in a character-driven novel.
I have to wonder, though, if the book would ever have been as popular without Plath’s personal story to go with it. She had some success in her lifetime, of course, but from all that I understand, it was pretty mild. It wasn’t until after her suicide that the literature barons paid a lot of attention to her and adopted her works into canon. Of course, The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, and it features heavily in studies about her life. So, without that suicide, would we know a whole lot about this book?
On the one hand, I think that it’s a very careful look at a personality. How much of the book is true and how much of it is embellished, based on Plath’s life, I don’t know, but there are passages throughout that highlight what it’s like to be teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Some of the scenes inside the asylum seem so real that it’s hard to imagine them being anything but scenes from Plath’s own life. So, using it as a textbook example of a breakdown, or an examination of a troubled author’s past, is certainly a valid reason for adopting the book into literary canon. And it’s certainly well told; at the very least, I found myself looking for time to finish the book as I neared the end of it. And without Plath’s unfortunate end, none of that theme has as much of an impact on the reader.
On the other hand, I don’t think her suicide really matters for the story itself. Outside of the theme, the story still carries the reader along on the journey, almost helplessly. If it were released today, The Bell Jar would probably fall under one the many major publishing houses, and possibly be picked up by Oprah for her book club. It’s not chick lit fare (it carries a bit more depth than I expect folks find in that genre), and semi-autobiographical or not, the look into a troubled soul is no more serious just because its author committed suicide. It just adds an interesting coda to the entire book.
This is a hard book to recommend, and it’s not really accurate to say I enjoyed it (“enjoy,” to me, suggests an emotion that doesn’t relate to the experience of reading a book, in the same way that describing reading as “fun” doesn’t really convey what I get out of the activity), but I don’t regret reading it. As to whether or not someone else would like reading it, it’s hard to say. It’s definitely compelling, though.