The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar: it’s a classic, acclaimed as a major work of feminist literature. Semi-autobiographical and published less than a month before Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963. I felt slightly embarrassed I hadn’t read it at my ripe old age.
So, how was my experience of this seminal text? I’m so sorry to say it, but it wasn’t a good one. It was Plath’s only novel and it felt like a writer’s clumsy first attempt. Esther, our protagonist, is two dimensional. Sure, she suffers from depression, which you would hope would make her a more complex character. But she is hard to connect to, she doesn’t ring true. The other characters are stock too; there’s the Medical Degree Boyfriend, the Prim and Proper Mother, the Unsympathetic Male Doctor.
What about as a work of feminist fiction? Well it works insofar as it shows how it used to be for women. Esther is so stressed out with the fear of getting pregnant that it consumes her. Pregnancy, then, meant that the lives of educated, driven women could be felled in one swoop. It made me so grateful for the control I am able to have over my own body, through societal and scientific advances.
Overall, the ‘women’s issues’ that Esther faces are not mine. As a feminist text, the Bell Jar did not feel relevant to me. One aspect felt more current; the pushing of women into more ladylike careers. Esther is educated and intelligent, yet her mother persists in encouraging her to learn shorthand and become a typist rather than building a successful career.
Recently I visited the London Transport Museum, where a video was showing on a loop. In it, women who worked in the industry described the obstacles they had to overcome to make it in a male-dominated world. One worker pointed out that when young girls show an interest in making or building things they are pointed towards the more feminine routes of art and architecture rather than construction and engineering. This, then, is still a 21st century feminist issue.
As a short book, the Bell Jar is worth a quick read. Try to give it a go when you are not already feeling depressed. As a warning, if you are not already, this novel is sure to get you down.