A few years ago, I outlived Sylvia Plath. And somehow, despite an aborted attempt at a PhD in American Studies, and a robust American poetry course as an undergrad, I'd read a lot of Plath's poems, but I'd never read The Bell Jar. Until this week. I read the whole thing on Monday. I haven't read an entire book in a day since high school, when I read all of The Great Gatsby in one sitting.
Why didn't I read it before? I think because no one takes it seriously. It's sort of that memoir-disguised-as-novel written specifically for college girls who cut their wrists for attention. Right?
In her introduction to the 1997 edition, Frances McCullough writes that if Sylvia Plath had lived, “it's hard to say whether … the novel would ever have been published in this country.” McCullough goes on to question what might have happened if Plath had written more novels, better novels. Would she have returned to her first novel, The Bell Jar, and thought differently? Would she have self-censored? Told less of the truth? Crafted the truth into something less raw? Something dulled at the edges, or as Wordsworth says, recollected in tranquility?
We'll never know. As McCullough says, “of course Plath did die a tragic death at the age of thirty, and the book's subsequent history has everything to do with that fact.” By which she means that Plath's suicide makes the book a cult favorite, but she also means that if Plath didn't die, the book might never have seen the light of day – because it's not very good. Right?
I was surprised. It's not the best book I've ever read. The plot – maybe because it's so true – feels predictable. The ending feels a little like a a Lifetime Movie. But, as McCullough points out, “her voice has such intensity, such a direct edge to it,” it forgives the structural flaws.
Take the opening lines:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along all your nerves.
And she never lets you go. It's a close, tunnel-vision narrative, right out of the eye-sockets of Esther Greenwood. And that voice never waivers.
It's not The Kite Runner. It's not a globally significant narrative. In fact, it doesn't stray very far from the geography, class or political background that it knows. So why does it matter? Why did it ever matter? Because one college educated white girl from New England was depressed one year and wanted to get it off her chest? Wanted to drag you into the eye of the storm?
This is why: because in her marriage negotiations with Buddy Willard, Esther Greenwood stumbles upon this observation:
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems anymore. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.
That's why. Because more than anything, this book struggles with the notion of either / or. Esther can be a poet or a mother. She can be an editor or a wife. You can pick one fruit off the fig tree, she says, and once you pick one, the rest of them wither and die.
What makes it so hard? Why are women prone to second guessing? Can't you do both? Be a mother and a writer? Tell the truth, and tell it hard, unfiltered, like a holy scream*, and do it well? I'm asking you. I've second-guessed my own answer.
You can debate Plath's answer – the suicide answer – the answer No, you can't. And if you try, you won't get out alive. But what you can't ignore here are the questions that Plath asks – about agency, about identity, and about telling the truth without apologizing. Or that what she asks has resonance, regardless of her own solution: "Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones."
*from the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry – the really old, 1972 version I have, in which Anne Sexton is listed as still living. In the intro to Sylvia Plath, the editors write “Sylvia Plath's poetry is a document of extremity. Her sensitivity is inordinate, but so is her ability to express it. The result is a holy scream, a splendid agony – beyond sex, beyond delicacy, beyond all but art.”