Tag Archives: novel

Book review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s difficult not to see this novel as anything other than semi-autobiographical. The Bell Jar certainly works as a story, with vivid descriptions, memorable imagery and intriguing psycho-emotional insights into a roller coaster journey through early adulthood.

The Bell JarBut the fact of the matter is that Sylvia Plath committed suicide just a month after it was published in the UK on January 14th, 1963. This lamentable event throws a dark shadow over every page. Its writing was the last chapter of a tragically short life which showed so much promise.

Having won a scholarship and later a competition which sees her working on a glossy fashion magazine and (it appears) “steering New York like her own private car”, protagonist Esther Greenwood starts out as someone whom she admits should be having the time of her life. The truth is very different: “… I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself”.

Her month-long stay with the magazine pushes her suddenly into the harsh glare of the Madison Avenue publicity machine. Although there are a number of comic episodes, she feels completely out of control of her own life, “very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”. This is just the first hint at what the bell jar leitmotif signifies: someone being scrutinised intently, starved of the oxygen of freedom to make their own decisions, their fate in the hands of others.

Sylvia PlathHaving been nearly raped at a party, Esther soon returns home. She receives the devastating news that she has not been accepted for the college place she craves. Her experience on the magazine, the attempted rape and the thwarting of her academic ambitions leave Esther feeling confused, uncertain and even suicidal.

Is this how Sylvia Plath (left) felt? Many have theorised. Although her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes was troubled, she certainly didn’t seem to be lacking in direction, producing some of her best pieces at a rapid rate towards the end.

Esther wants to write a novel, but decides that she doesn’t have sufficient experience of life. The world, in any case, is a “hotchpotch”. She receives an unwanted marriage proposal. She flits from idea to idea, never settling for long on a plan for her future. Her mind constantly dances from one scheme to another. Eventually, her mental and physical health go into decline. Her mother insists she see a psychiatrist and she receives ECT treatment.

Esther makes a number of attempts at suicide; references to death and suicide pepper the novel. At the beach, for instance, she considers sitting on a log and waiting to be drowned by the incoming tide. While doing so, “I fingered the box of razors in my pocket book”. There’s an early and repeated reference to the fate of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the first Americans to be executed for spying, convicted of sending a rough sketch of the atomic bomb to the Russians.

Plath’s writing style is easy and rich in wonderful, detailed imagery and sensory observation throughout, as in “… the buzz of the orange squeezer sounded from downstairs, and the smell of coffee and bacon filtered under my door. Then the sink water ran from the tap and dishes clinked as my mother dried them and put them back in the cupboard”. And a later example: “I pictured the snowflakey, Grandma Moses villages, the reaches of swampland rattling with dried cat-tails, the ponds where frog and hornpout dreamed in a sheath of ice, and the shivering woods”.

But it appears that Esther can’t escape from her past. Maybe that’s how Sylvia felt at the end?

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”.

 

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Dust – doesn’t it seem to just get everywhere?

“Brazil, get up, dust yourself off and move forward”.

To whom was the Brazilian President speaking, when she said those memorable words? Personally I don’t think they were necessarily addressed to the country as a whole but rather to the Brazilian players. Having already been flattened to the tune of 7-1 by Germany’s steamroller, they could quite easily find themselves hitting the dust fairly frequently in the coming months, if irate fans decide to seek vengeance for their dreadful performance.

According to the papers, the words of o Presidente were taken from a Brazilian song, though they sound remarkably like the lyrics of a certain 1936 Jerome Kern classic (words by Dorothy Field), from the days when melody was king. This Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers version is not so dusty – must admit I’ve recently come to admire the sheer artistry of these two.

But to digress for a moment: “Dust yourself off” … how would you go about that? You’d probably use your hands, though there’s always the Hoover/Dyson option, I suppose. Apparently Mr Dyson, who has quite cleverly made his billions from dust, has now developed a hoover (lol) that doesn’t need a filter. “It has taken six years and cost £7.5 million to perfect the filter-less vacuum with 2,000 prototypes used to suck up two tonnes of dust“.

The main problem with dust is that most of it tends to float about, of course, so you never actually get rid of it, filters or no filters. And where does it all come from? According to an article in the latest issue of Open Minds magazine, up to 40 tonnes (and, by the way, is that the same as tons?) of space dust rain down on the earth every day.

Astronauts go up in planes fitted out with special pads to collect sample cosmic specks (like you do) before they get contaminated with other dust. The reason they have to be so choosy about the type of dust they collect is that the higher up it is, the purer it is. I’m thinking that that rather contrasts with the structure of British society at the moment, but let it pass.

If you’re unfortunate enough to get a bit of dust in your eye, take my tip. Roll your eyelid over a matchstick and catch it on the end of a wedge of tissue paper – works every time. There’s nothing worse than having Something in your Eyes. Which did make me wonder how anyone could find such an experience an appropriate subject for a song; but someone did – and actually it’s quite a wistful ballad, best version by Dusty Springfield. Here she is, singing it with Richard Carpenter, who apparently often wears goggles (no he doesn’t, I made that bit up).

One unintended legacy aspect of the World Cup in Brazil really ought to be a memory of the poor people who live in the People’s Camp, just two miles from São Paulo’s World Cup stadium. Abject poverty often seems to live cheek by jowl with obscene wealth.

It’s something Charles Dickens frequently referred to, dickensjpgmost memorably via the image of the dust heaps in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend. I wonder if James Dyson has ever read it?

‘The man,’ Mortimer goes on, addressing Eugene, ‘whose name is Harmon, was only son of a tremendous old rascal who made his money by Dust.’

‘Red velveteens and a bell?’ the gloomy Eugene inquires.

‘And a ladder and basket if you like. By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,–all manner of Dust.’

A passing remembrance of Mrs Veneering, here induces Mortimer to address his next half-dozen words to her; after which he wanders away again, tries Twemlow and finds he doesn’t answer, ultimately takes up with the Buffers who receive him enthusiastically.

‘The moral being–I believe that’s the right expression–of this exemplary person, derived its highest gratification from anathematizing his nearest relations and turning them out of doors. Having begun (as was natural) by rendering these attentions to the wife of his bosom, he next found himself at leisure to bestow a similar recognition on the claims of his daughter. He chose a husband for her, entirely to his own satisfaction and not in the least to hers, and proceeded to settle upon her, as her marriage portion, I don’t know how much Dust, but something immense. At this stage of the affair the poor girl respectfully intimated that she was secretly engaged to that popular character whom the novelists and versifiers call Another, and that such a marriage would make Dust of her heart and Dust of her life–in short, would set her up, on a very extensive scale, in her father’s business. Immediately, the venerable parent–on a cold winter’s night, it is said– anathematized and turned her out.’

No doubt she too got up, dusted herself off and moved forward.

And let’s just hope her dreams, unlike those of the Brazilian fans and footballers, didn’t turn to dust …

 

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