Why is it that when a car crash happens or when we see a video of a guy on the verge of falling and most likely injuring at least half of his body we can’t look away? Unfortunately, I cannot answer this particular question, however, I will try to show you how it links to the popularity of The Bell Jar, the deeply disturbing and saddening best-selling novel by Sylvia Plath, which, once you start, you will not be able to stop reading. I also wanted to take a closer look at the subject of the Cold War present in the novel, connected with Plath’s ideas about death, art, pain, and loneliness. She masterfully develops those notions against the backdrop of the US economy, cultural capitalism, and post-war politics, proving her to be a crucial voice of not only her but also our times. War and its implications are an important topic to discuss especially now, since despite conflicts going on constantly since the end of the last World War, many of us have only recently been forced to realize their prevalence and gravity.
Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963) was an American writer most famous for her (only) novel The Bell Jar, poems like “Lady Lazarus” or “Daddy”, but probably even more for her tragic death by suicide at 30 years old. This event, combined with the portrayal of mental exhaustion and desperate cries for understanding in her publications, often leaves her constrained to the category of confessional poets (meaning that they confess their excruciating internal pain to the readers), yet deeper analysis of her stylistic choices and biography allows us to escape of that restrictive view, deriving much deeper truths about society and politics of the 1950s.
The setting of “The Bell Jar” is significant, as it was a period of the emergence of revolutionary ideas on feminism, individuality, and economic changes in US society. Since it is written from the perspective of the brilliantly perceptive Esther Greenwood, a scholarship student at an all-female school in New York, it becomes a great commentary on the 50s and 60s. This was a time when a sense of stability and order was attempted to be established through rigid norms and government propaganda, but the looming threat of war, even a nuclear one, was ahead.
Paradoxically (or maybe not), the book serves as a social, globally accurate critique because of how personal it is: literally, an account of the deterioration of one’s mental health. The isolation felt by Esther, the lack of understanding from others, the loss of agency over her own actions, and dissociative episodes are portrayed in an impressively (also concerningly) accurate way.
I will prove my point by presenting a (hopefully, for those who have not read the novel yet) “plot-unrevealing” fragment (that, also hopefully, encourages you to do so). Greenwood is invited to a meeting in the United Nations, the center of international cultural and political interactions. She goes there with a newly met guy, a translator at the UN, Constantin. Even before the two meet, Esther has already painted a pretty picture of a man who would “love her passionately the minute he met her”. She makes immediate connections between a male presence and marriage, trying hard to convince herself that Constantin is the one, that he will see that “who she really is”, is special. This fragment indirectly characterizes her upbringing, both at home and school, carried out in accordance with cultural standards set for women – she is conditioned to seek male validation and see each man as a possible savior of her fate, someone willing to get married, saving her from being single and possibly, god forbid, childless. She does not define herself through her own standards, she has not been given the tools to do so, she can only do it through men and her narrowly defined role in society as mother and wife.
After the two eventually meet and go to the meeting, we learn next to nothing about what goes on during it, as the fragment is Esther’s draining stream of consciousness. She enters the world of her past and future. The sentence “I was only purely happy until I was 9 years old”, which seems to be a conclusion reached from observing the serious and official character of a UN meeting, strikes the reader as out of place, and rightfully so. She is distant from what is directly in front of her. The description of the female Russian interpreter is incredibly packed with hidden reflections on the political climate of the Cold War era that Esther has internalized. Reading about “a stern muscular Russian girl with no makeup”, we sense an obvious contrast to what we have thus far learned about Esther’s environment of delicate, dolled-up American girls, and her collection of reluctantly acquired dresses and make-up products, which she feels constrained by on more than a physical level. She has been indoctrinated into living in one way, and this situation confirms that it is not the only one.
This personal encounter of our main character reflects how the relationship with the USSR had important implications, from the domestic point of view for the US, on culture, through which the role of women is largely defined. US political leaders, ideologically opposing communism to be able to better justify what they were doing militarily, encouraged women to do the opposite of what the Soviet model advocated for – primarily involved in the workforce. Obviously, the US housewife model is quite exclusive, in that many women outside of the middle class never had the choice not to work (especially minority women). Despite the unstandardized nature of oppression in US society, which (oh how respectfully) differentiates between social groups, all women are united by the need to render their lives meaningless and useless, unless there is a man by their side, to limit their career prospects so that they have no means to free themselves from the oppression of men. This is why Esther says she “wished with all my heart I could crawl into her… It mightn’t make me any happier, but it would be one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles”. We can see that she longs to be something in life, to be an equally as important part of society as her male counterparts, or in this instance, the women from a different culture. This statement is also important on a non-gendered level. Even if you join the workforce, you are still deemed to be unhappy, because the economic system you are working for is not there to give you fulfillment – you are a unit of productivity. But somehow, women still long to be in this unit. Esther does not tell us why, but things being that way should make us concerned.
This is what Plath elaborates on further in the metaphor of the fig tree, the poetic version of societal standards that kill. Later during the meeting, Esther has a vision (because that is the extent of the expressiveness of the paragraph) in which she “saw (her) life branching out before (her) like the green fig”. She lists all the things that the figs represent, which are all her potential accomplishments, goals, ideas, and dreams. Esther is extremely ambitious, she wants to see and learn, create and develop, but what happens is all that is not possible – the figs “wrinkle” and “go black”. This personal account of inhibition perfectly presents to the reader what women’s lives are like. We can see that she seems to have no agency over her actions and thoughts. Her mind goes from desperately attempting to think and act in accordance with what she has been taught, to dissociation and spiraling. The environment of destruction, death, and unsettling emotions that the Cold War era induced in citizens of the US all made it much easier for hopelessness, anxiety, and fear to become part of personal lives and minds too.
What I am trying to bring attention to in this text is how works packed with the theme of mental illness are not only about an individual – they reflect much bigger notions and movements. Today, mental health awareness seems to be put on a pedestal. We are bombarded with infographics on self-care, medication, and treatment that are being destigmatized, and we become more educated as a society. Despite this growth, we must remember that culture and economy are central to what we believe and feel. The patriarchy kept stable through the workings of media and governments, is still affecting how women feel. Many feminists fight for equality within the existing system, but equality should not mean that everyone will be, as Esther said herself, “one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles”. More focus should be put on developing a culture where everyone can flourish according to their own ideas, and one in which none of those ideas involve limiting other people.
Reading The Bell Jar made me more critical of the media I consume and of what I consider to be a change for the better. Not everyone will have the same takeaway from reading the book and other works by Plath, and that is why everyone should read it. If change is to happen, it has to start from the personalized experience that merges with others into a universal one, and through this text, this is possible.