Bus Reads 4: Thoughts on Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’

On the left, a very good cover for the book, with concentric circles suggesting a spiralling and trapped mental state...and on the right... my copy. Garish and rather hideous.

On the left, a very good cover for the book, with concentric circles suggesting a spiralling and trapped mental state…and on the right… my copy. Garish and rather hideous.

I’ve got a long way to go to be up-to-date with my book reviews, but this is another off the list. The problem is that I can’t really remember what I wanted to say about some of the texts, or even if I really wanted to say anything particularly about them at all. This is one such book that has been causing me issue.

Now, don’t get me wrong- I like this book. It is on the list of my favourite novels. However, I can’t really say why I like it. It’s not as though the subject matter is a cheery one that makes you want to read it for light relief, and considering how sublime a poet Plath was, her prose falls somewhat flat in comparison. Indeed, I often found the writing somewhat cold, but it could be said that this matches well the narrator’s mental state, suggesting one of detachment and introspection. The plot is not that elaborate, but I did like the way in which this allows Plath to focus on some of the mundane details and the actual mental state of her voice in the text. The novel also seems somewhat cyclical, with Esther being pretty much where she begun despite her sexual awakening, realisation of her freedom as a woman, and seemingly successful treatment, and this works well to suggest that her recovery is perhaps temporary and the clarity is transitory. I can’t fault Plath on the way in which she describes and illustrates the slow collapse of a person’s sanity and mind, and the sparse plot allows for this to be shown almost imperceptibly, taking the reader along with the narrator and really dragging them into the place of the character.

I feel that I also must comment on the opening line of the novel:

It was a queer, sultry summer; the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

This works to introduce the novel in miniature, with her confusion and isolation hinted at, along with the electro-shock therapy that Esther will undergo, and the fact that this was a summer that would stand out as being different and defining. I also like it for the fact that the juxtaposition of the summer and the death, almost glanced over, instantly startles and unnerves the reader, and conjures up the images of Plath’s poems. Definitely one to reread and reanalyse.

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