“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”
I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.
Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”
Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?
While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.
my rating: ★★★☆☆