The Bell Jar is a novel about a college aged girl approaching, going through, and eventually recovering from a nervous breakdown. Its author, poet Sylvia Plath, first published it in England, hoping it would never reach the United States (where she was born and had lived most of her life). She later admitted the book was semi-autobiographical and didn’t want anyone in her life to recognize themselves in some of the characters in it. Plath experienced a similar breakdown fresh out of college and sunk into a deep depression. She spent some time in an asylum, receiving counseling and electric shock therapy. Her novel received critical praise and seemed bound for success right from the start. Despite its promising success and the success of her poetry, despite the love of her husband and two children and many friends and family, Plath ended her life only one month after seeing The Bell Jar published. She left no note but some of what she wrote in her one and only published novel seems to explain clearly enough: “How did I know that someday…the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
What astonished me while reading this book is something that has astonished me many times before: how similar we human beings are to the ones who lived (and wrote) 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, and probably more. Some of the thoughts expressed in The Bell Jar could have been plucked from my own mind or the mind of any woman living her life right now, in 2012. I experienced this exact same phenomenon while reading The Awakening and Jane Eyre and Austen’s novels and Dickens’ and many others. What it leads me to believe is that despite the great changes the world has undergone in the past couple hundred years, despite the many advances in technology and medicine and the ways in which we communicate, the ways in which we conduct our lives, the way we perceive, feel and interpret life has not changed.
I’ve expressed before that while I am happily married, I have reservations about becoming a mother. I only bring this up as an example to illustrate the kind of connection referenced above, how surprised I was while reading The Bell Jar to learn that a woman who reached adulthood in the 1950s, a time when women choosing not to marry or have children was nearly unheard of, expressed feelings so similar to my own. Esther Greenwood, the story’s protagonist, is a 21 year-old aspiring poet and writer who’s nearly finished obtaining her degree and finds that even well-educated women are expected to marry, raise children and stay home after finishing college. A prospective suitor even tells her that after she has children she’ll feel differently, she won’t want to write poems anymore. Esther observes: “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.”
I wouldn’t liken marriage and parenthood to being brainwashed but I do feel that choosing certain paths in life limits your choices for others and I’ve never read a better description of that idea than in Plath’s novel:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree…From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor…and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
I know some folks don’t like to read the classics because they were written in such a different time, they feel they can’t understand or connect with the characters or stories. I feel the exact opposite. Part of the fun of reading is discovering new worlds and learning about other cultures and walks of life, but more often than not, after reading a book, I feel the gap between myself and others has shrunk. There’s a certain comfort to be had in knowing that my thoughts and perceptions and ideas are the same thoughts and ideas that people have had for centuries. That despite all the changes the world has undergone, there are some things innate to the human condition that have never changed.