Inside a mental breakdown: Re-reading ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

the-bell-jarThe Bell Jar is the only novel written by the late, great American poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide aged 30 in 1963, a month after it was published.

I had read the book, which chronicles a young woman’s mental breakdown,  a long time ago, whilst living in London. Battling my own mental health issues at the time, I found it a balm against my own inner torments.

Then, recently, whilst browsing a pile of books offered for free at the local library, I came across a copy of The Bell Jar. Curious to see what kind of effect it had on me 15 years later, in a much better frame of mind, I snapped it up and re-read it – twice.

Set in the summer of 1953, it tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an attractive young writer and aspiring poet (the fictional version of Sylvia Plath) from the quiet suburbs of Boston who finds herself – for the first time – in the Big Apple. Esther is there because she, along with a host of other bright, young girls, has won a writing competition to spend a month working for New York fashion magazine,  Ladies Day.

Written in the first person, in the confessional style of a diarist, Esther begins:

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

Esther knows something is wrong, because instead of having the “time of her life’ amid the glamorous lifestyle of lavish lunches, movie premiers and photo shoots with her new, excitable friends, she’s thinking about  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple accused of spying for the Soviet Union and who were executed for treason in June 1953.

Esther’s already fragile state of mind grows increasingly more cynical and gloomier during her stay in Manhattan as she encounters situations and people that frighten, disappoint and disorientate her: a wild night out with her rebellious friend Doreen ends up with Esther feeling like the “only extra person in the room”, a lunch where she deliberately over indulges on caviar ends with Esther suffering an awful bout of food poisoning while her plan to seduce the kindly United Nations simultaneous interpreter Constantin, ends in failure.  Then, on her last night in the city, she is viciously attacked at a country club by her date and narrowly avoids being raped.

Staring out the window of her hotel room at the “weird, green, Martian Honeycomb” shaped United Nations building on her last night, Esther muses:

The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

She goes on to say…

The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not been there at all, for all the good it did me.

Esther’s poetic narration reminded me of Holden Caufield, the rebellious anti-hero of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, who wandered around Manhattan calling out all the ‘phoneys’ in the world. Esther, like Holden Caufield, can spot a phoney a mile away and she finds nothing inspiring in the glitz and glamour of Manhattan life.

The day after Esther is nearly raped at the country club, she takes the train home, her face covered in claw marks. This marks the start of second part of the book: Esther’s return to the outer suburbs of Boston and her mother’s house.

Here the ‘Bell Jar’ starts to descend over her after she hears she has not been accepted into a summer creative writing program.

I sank back in the grey, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded around me and I couldn’t stir.

The Bell Jar – a vessel used in scientific laboratories to form and contain a vacuum – is the way Esther visualizes her suffocating depression as a physical barrier that traps and holds her swirling, darkening cloud of suicidal thought, with no means of escape.

The shape of the Bell Jar is also mirrored in Esther’s aborted suicide attempt, when she tries to sink under the ocean whilst swimming to a rock far out to sea ,and then later  when she hides herself in an alcove underneath her mother’s house and takes an overdose of slipping pills.

Miraculously Esther survives, but ends up in successive psychiatric hospitals,where she undergoes electroshock therapy, a treatment she describes in all its clinical detail, evoking through her poetic imagery, the horror of the experience:

There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whe-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

While this may seem like a demoralising book to wade through from start to finish, it has the strange, reverse effect of being life- affirming.

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Sylvia Plath

This I put down to the brilliance of Plath’s writing, which is full of the powerful imagery that made her poetry so magnetic and Plath’s ability to draw deeply from the well of her own personal experiences of dealing with severe depression to bring Esther’s mental state so vividly to life.

Few writers have given us such access to the inner workings of the young, intellectual mind, brilliant and yet so vulnerable to collapse as through the character of Esther Greenwood.

The truth is that just about everyone is susceptible to losing their mental footing, to slipping into despair, to doubting their own cognitive faculties.

It is of course a profound tragedy though that writing the book did not provide enough of a cathartic experience for Sylvia Plath to sustain her own will to live.

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Conversations with Holden Caulfield

catcher_in_the_rye_penguin_2I picked up my old paperback copy of JD Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye after watching the movie ‘The Killing of John Lennon’ about Mark David Chapman, the wayward young man who killed The Beatles singer and songwriter, and remains in jail.

It seemed a bit of sinister that I should choose to re-read this cult novel after watching a movie about an infamous murderer and murder, but the connection is an obvious one. 

Chapman shot Lennon in December 1980, outside the singer’s apartment in Manhattan, and famously took his inspiration to kill from The Catcher in the Rye and its narrator, 16-year-old angst-ridden rebel, Holden Caulfield.

In the movie, Chapman calls Lennon a ‘phoney’ – as Holden Caulfield calls so many people in the novel – because Lennon preached ‘no possessions’ (famously in his hit song ‘Imagine‘) and yet owned mansions and yachts and was immensely wealthy.

At his trial, when Chapman was asked if he had anything to say, he rose and read the passage from The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden tells his little sister, Phoebe, what he wants to do with his life:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

Picking up and re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, the exact same lemon yellow copy which I had read as a young man, was both a joy (it’s such an engaging, hilarious, thought-provoking and sad story), and also a rather unsettling experience. 

Mostly because, I  noticed all the passages and sections I had underlined about ‘phoneys’, and people “never noticing anything” and “girls driving you crazy” and “being a madman”. I realised that back then, I like Mark Chapman, was also a rather lost, somewhat bitter young man (thought without any murderous intentions I am certain) who had made a similar emotional connection with Holden Caulfield.

Holden’s inner monologue about the world and its endless disappointments, as he traipsed around New York, mirrored many of my own inner frustrations and torments at the time.

In fact it wasn’t just underlining that I had done, but I’d also engaged in conversations with Holden, writing responses to the things he said. In short, I was a bit of a “madman” myself.

 At one point I wrote: “Really Holden, I beg to differ with you. You are talking shit,” this in response to Holden saying “You don’t always have to get sexy to know a girl.”

In another note, I wrote simply  “Alicia Silverstone” alongside a passage in which Holden describes a girl he has a crush on, Jane Gallagher. 

 Holden observes that when Jane got excited when talking “her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all”. It must have been around the time the movie Clueless came out which made Silverstone, who had this sexy, pouty mouth,  a star and ever young man’s fantasy. 

Clearly, I really connected with Holden Caulfield back then, and to be entirely truthful more than 20 years on, I still find a lot of wisdom in some of his observations. 

Across the generations, millions of others have made a similar connection to their own feelings of adolescent loneliness and frustration about a world of phoneys: The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since it was published in 1951 and according to Wikipedia, continues to sell 250,000 copies every year.

There’s so many passages in the book that just knock the lights out for me, not least his awkward ncounter with a young prostitute in his hotel room where he loses his nerve, and just wants to chat.

It really must have stunned readers back in the conservative 1950s with Holden’s frank observations about sex (“I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.”), desire (“I was feeling pretty horny, I have to admit it.”), suicide (“I almost wished I was dead.”), death and depression (“I just felt blue as hell”).

Of course, a lot of Holden’s behaviour, thoughts and opinions are those of angst-ridden, affected adolescent, too intelligent for his own good, but at the same time there is also so much truth and poignancy in what he says about people and their phoneyness, be they teachers, priests, movie stars or members of his own family (“All mothers are slightly insane”).

 It’s hard to pick out a favourite passage because their are so many. But I f I had to choose one, It would be when Holden decides to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum, which he loved visiting on school trips because “it always felt like it was raining outside, even when it wasn’t” and where he’d eat candy and chew gum and a girl would hold his hand. 

He recalls his favourite exhibits,  the Indians in a war canoe “about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row” and the eskimos fishing through a hole in the ice.

Holden says you could return a hundred thousand times and nothing would be different, the eskimos would still be there, except you would be different in some way. 

 He then thinks about his kid sister Phoebe, and that she would visit the museum like he did as a school kid and she too would be different every time she visited.

It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad. Anyway, I kept thinking about all that while I walked.

There’s something so brutally true about this.

Don’t we all long for some things to never change? That our parents not grow old, that those we love not pass away or disappear from our lives.

Don’t we all want to be Catchers in the Rye?