Friday, 15 August 2014

Kim's Review : The Bell Jar

"The Bell Jar" is an iconic book by Sylvia Plath originally written in 1963, under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas". This is her only novel, she was better known for her poetry and children's books and is best known for her two published collections, The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In 1982, she even won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems. Plath had committed suicide on 11 February 1963, shortly after The Bell Jar was published, 5 months after separating from her husband.

The book starts off as an easy read and its almost reminiscent of "The Devil Wears Prada" (in the imagery that it invokes) and then it gets heavier and heavier as Esther Greenwood starts battling Depression. Its so realistically described, that it kept bogging me down as I read it.

Its set in the 1950's, when women were quite repressed. So while at times I just wanted to shake Esther up and tell her to "snap out of it", I could also empathise with her feeling of being trapped (inside a Bell Jar) in a Society where women's voices and aspirations were mostly just ignored.

The novel starts with Esther Greenwood having won an internship at a New York fashion magazine in 1953 (timeline is set by the Rosenberg Execution). It seems like she has the whole world for the taking. She has plenty of interested mentors - strong female personalities who have bucked the conventions and made a name for themselves in their respective fields.

But her background, what she considers her financial situation as poverty, her lack of closure at her fathers death, the loss of confidence in her abilities all of this start crippling her more and more, until all she feels is stifled and she keeps considering different ways to commit suicide.

Plath's Bell Jar is considered semi-autobiographical and was published in UK in 1963 and in the US in 1971. Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour - it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.... I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar". She described her novel as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past" (Plath Biographical Note 294-5 & 293. From Wagner-Martin (1988))

(this technique of weaving facts from real life, overlaid with a facade of fiction, into a novel is termed Roman à clef, French for novel with a key. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the "key" is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction.)

The Bell Jar is a brilliantly written book. As an author Sylvia Plath is able to transmit the feelings, thoughts, misgivings, fears, terrors and apprehensions to the reader so well. This is an art in itself.

This book is a classic and figures in so many "Must Read" / "Top Reads" lists, for good reason. As a reader though, I would caution you to make sure that you are in a really happy and positive place in your life, before you start to read this one. Inspite of being in a positive frame of mind, I found myself feeling heavy after each stint of reading a couple of chapters at a time and I would take a break of at least 2 days before being able to pick up this book again and that too only with the hope that the situation HAD to get better.

Rating : 4 / 5

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