|Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí|
Dalí and Lorca’s games of seduction
Barcelona 20 JUN 2013 - 08:40 COT
In 1957, six years before The Bell Jar would be published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Sylvia Plath mused in her journals: "I could write a terrific novel. The tone is the problem. I'd like it to be serious, tragic, yet gay & rich & creative." Knowing that she shared "that fresh, brazen, colloquial voice," she thought she might model herself on JD Salinger, but worried that his first-person perspective could prove "limiting". The voice that Plath eventually created is indeed fresh, brazen and colloquial, but also sardonic and bitter, the story of a young woman's psychological disintegration and eventual – provisional – recovery. The tone of The Bell Jar is not its problem, but its triumph.
An acidic satire on the madness of 1950s America and the impossibility of living up to its contradictory ideals of womanhood, The Bell Jar is a much funnier book than its reputation as the favourite novel of morbidly self-obsessed adolescent girls suggests. Among the many ironies surrounding the novel's undeserved reputation for taking itself seriously, one of the sharpest is perhaps the way that it has tended to be dismissed along gender lines, as a book "merely" for women. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the men it depicts are either toxic or hopeless? When Esther Greenwood first sees a naked man, she recalls: "The only thing I could think of was a turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed." But Plath excoriates the women who conformed to the era's rules, as well; "girls like that make me sick," Esther repeats in a refrain that becomes increasingly pointed: her society is indeed making Esther sick. Having been hospitalised after a suicide attempt, Esther has an epiphany about the way that conventional femininity was trapping all the women like her: "What was there about us, in Belsize [Hospital], so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort."
Esther has been straitjacketed by her era's rigid ideas about women and its double standards: when she is told, "what a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from," Esther responds that she "wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a 4th of July rocket". That is Esther's declaration of independence, and she will spend the rest of the novel fighting the kinds of battles that would eventually be called the sexual revolution. Appearing in the same year as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and a year after Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, The Bell Jar was part of that revolution – but also a book of biting wit, mordant social observation, and a moving exploration of how a search for integrity can lead to disintegration.
When I think of The Bell Jar, I do not think first of the story of Esther Greenwood's harrowing entrapment in the suffocating air of her own madness. I do not think of the echo chamber of disillusionment and despair behind Sylvia Plath's first suicide attempt at 20 and the tragic finality of her successful attempt at 30. What I think of is the one moment in Plath's novel when she casts her fictional counterpart beyond the trajectory of the story's events. Recalling the "piles and piles" of swag heaped upon herself and the other college girls who'd won summer jobs at a New York fashion magazine, Esther describes the gilt make-up kit and bedazzled sunglasses case she still keeps. "I use the lipsticks now and then," she says, and here is Esther's singular moment out of time: "… and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with."
It is this hopeful leap into the future that pierces me: the older Esther, a mother now, practical and resourceful – just as Plath was during the creation of The Bell Jar. Pregnant with her second child, awaiting the imminent publication of her first poetry collection, Plath wrote her novel in a matter of months, the grant she'd received to fund its completion strategically repurposed so she could get started on yet another book – the poems we now know as the Ariel poems. Plath's Ariel was no less a story of redemption than The Bell Jar: the story of a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an artist who still believed not just in the possibility of happiness, but in herself. However brief and fragile her moment of hope, however anguished those last months of her life, Plath recognised the timeless incandescence of her achievement. It was, she wrote: "A gift, a love gift/Utterly unasked for …"
It was, it is, a star passing from her hand into ours.
Wintering, inspired by Plath's Ariel poems, by Kate Moses is published by Sceptre
The Bell Jar is a novel of reckless vitality, and although it's about death, trauma, suicide and madness, it's as exhilarating as its narrator's first mad dash down the ski slope when she manages triumphantly to break her leg in two places. High-flying Esther Greenwood is in no way a victim, she is as greedy for experience as she is for caviar and cocktails, and she is the one who takes the initiative in her own headlong career. She is the seducer, not the seduced, a role which few women claimed in the 60s: she engineers her own loss of virginity, and coolly plants the $20 hospital bill for the "one in a million" haemorrhage that ensues upon the poor young professor whom she entraps. This is a novel about ambition and desire, about a woman's refusal even to contemplate life as a doormat. Esther wants everything. She's funny, vivid, extreme. There had been few heroines like her in fiction, but many more were to follow in her wake.
Margaret Drabble's most recent book is A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Penguin Modern Classics)
I read The Bell Jar as an adolescent, and like most teenagers had no problem identifying with a young woman who had everything going for her – looks, talent, opportunity, with her "whole life ahead of her," yadda, yadda, yadda – yet was spiralling into misery. These days depression is the stuff of postprandial dinner-party prattle, but Plath explored the condition with no sense of its being a "condition" that others shared, no established therapeutic vocabulary, and no Prozac. It was really only when William Styron published Darkness Visible in 1990 that depression entered mainstream social discourse and began to lose its stigma (even growing into a badge of honour for a while). Ironically, now that we regard it as a standard, hardly shameful diagnosis, routinely treatable with drugs, we may have lost a raw sense of how awful, terrifying, and bleak is the real thing. The Bell Jar restores the horror.
Lionel Shriver is the author of We Need to Talk about Kevin (Serpent's Tail)
The early 60s was a terrible time for women. Worse for clever ambitious women. Valium had been on the market for two years in 1963 and by this time was being advertised aggressively at healthy women who felt trapped and desperate and whose distress had to be medicated away. This is the world of The Bell Jar.
The Bell Jar was published at the same time as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was reissued after its long ban in the USA. The misogynist masterpiss billets half the population to the whorehouse. All women are for sex. Rich women are for cash. Poor women are for housework. Why wouldn't a woman go mad in a world like this? Why wouldn't a woman as gifted as Plath become terminally depressed and end in suicide? Pills don't change the world. Feminism did.
The Bell Jar was a call to action because it is a diary of despair.
Plath was gifted. She could have been great. Wrong generation. Wrong medication.
I read The Bell Jar as a teenager and was enthralled by it. I had never encountered a narrative voice so much like the one inside my head: fluttery, self-conscious, goofy, melodramatic. Plath and I were alike, I was sure, yet what I retained from The Bell Jar was mostly a sense of the narrator's irrepressible effervescence. Her suffering, and the foreshadowing of tragedy, made less impact. I felt the same kinship with Plath reading her diaries from her early years at Cambridge, when she met Ted Hughes, which I encountered a few years later. By then I was mature enough to muse over how Plath's self-dramatising highs and lows could have devolved into pure horror, but I never found the clear link between her exuberance and what followed. It occurs to me only now that my confusion about Plath's fate may have partly inspired my first novel, The Invisible Circus, in which a teenage girl tries to solve the mystery of her older sister's suicide: a lively, charismatic girl who threw herself from a cliff. Phoebe, my protagonist, runs away from home in search of the link between the exuberant sister she remembers, and her inexplicable end.
Photo by Sarah Lee