You guys, The Bell Jar!
There are those books that everyone reads in school...or at least that the teacher assigns which some people read and others just pretend to. I am an over-achiever. I read everything. But, I did not read "The Bell Jar" - and I am truly glad I didn't, because there is no way my 16 year old self could have begun to appreciate just how good it is.
This book. This book! I find sometimes there is a strange phenomenon that happens when a book is particularly popular or well-known where you start to feel like you've read it, even when you haven't. I have been part of conversations which included this book, seen it referenced in pop culture often and knew of Esther Greenwood before I ever opened the cover. It is about "Esther's descent into depression and insanity." Except, it's so much more than that.
There is definitely something to be said about historical context here. Sylvia Plath was writing her truth in a time where mental health was still almost a complete mystery. And I say that while understanding that we are just now starting to grasp it's complexities. This book stretches beyond Esther's struggle and really puts a mirror to how society perceives depression. To say Esther isn't actually fighting a very real condition would be an insult to her character, as well as the many people who battle depression on a daily basis. But there are so many more layers that make her more worthy than the pop-culture stereotype she has become.
Esther Greenwood has a ton of promise from a young age. She has a creative mind. And it is not an uncommon story that this particular set of circumstances culminate in a young adult who feels adrift, who feels separate from the "main stream" world in which they are trying to live. Before she shows any sign of mental illness, she's just stifled. Bored. She has a hard time conforming to the standards placed upon women and consequently starts to rebel against them. This is the point where other people start to think there may be something wrong with her, but I don't think there is yet. Did you know it was common practice from the Victorian era to place women in asylums when they refused marriage? Or sometimes if they spoke of seeking higher education? That practice was still in effect (though less so) in the 1950's/60's, and while we don't actually submit these women into mental hospitals now, the looming question of "what's wrong with her" still hangs in the air when a woman chooses academic or career pursuits over a family. This is where "The Bell Jar" dips into public perception. And what is amazing to me is I don't know if this is even something that was intentionally done by Sylvia Plath - it honestly feels more intuitive, that this is just the society she recognized. But to me, it was a society I recognize too and the first time I felt really connected to Esther.
Y'all, I related to Esther on a deep level. And I did not expect that. Largely because I don't and have never really dealt with depression, or at least not as deeply as others have. I am, on the whole, a very cheerful and optimistic person. And I don't say that out of narcissism, I've been told. One of my roommates won't even talk to me until she has had her first cup of coffee in the morning because I am "too awake and happy" from the time I roll out of bed. So as I read "The Bell Jar," I was caught very off-guard to how much I felt I understood Esther. Time to get a little personal: for a time in my sophomore year of college, I was very unhappy. I felt stuck, and stifled, and unsure of myself - I hesitate to ever call this depression because it was only a few months and I "healed" myself through sheer force of will and some life changes; and, in no way is it remotely close to the struggle I have seen numerous of my friends live with. But it happened, and it was dark. And it felt like I was trapped in a bell jar. The pervading metaphor of this story is so on point. "How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?" Like all humans ever, Esther experiences high and lows, the good times and bad, a lot of growing pains and sometimes she can handle it...and sometimes she can't. This doesn't make her mad. It just makes her real.
Beyond how I connected to this book on a personal level, it's just a really great book, with a really fascinating and strong central female character. There are so many layers - Esther is not just dealing with depression. She's dealing with societal expectations, the growing pains of navigating her place in the world, certain life events that are sure to cause some level of PTSD, an unsupportive family, toxic friend groups, dashed hopes and dreams, the frustrations of being talked down to simply for being a woman and a general restlessness that comes with wanting a life more exciting and glamorous than the one you are experiencing. She is amazingly three-dimensional and nuanced: I suspect most women would see in her a part of themselves, though perhaps a part we prefer to keep buried.*
by Sylvia Plath
*This book is by no means a "feel good fun time." I tried to listen to it while painting at night in a theatre by myself, with only my thoughts to keep my company. I turned it off and open it again when I was less-likely to start questioning my entire life up to this point. You've been warned.