It was a sho… (no, I get the sense that would be in bad taste)… surprise. The withering hatred of men? The unblinking, barefaced portrayal of depression and psychological treatment? Well, yes, both of those, but even more so this: that the most famous female poet of the twentieth century should write a novel with a decided lack of writing quality.
The Bell Jar is a (semi-autobiographical) novel of two weirdly disjointed halves which don’t feel very coherent. In the first half, Esther Greenwood is part of a 1950s-New-York-Girl-About-Town storyline, from which she is eerily disconnected. However in the second half of the novel, returning to her suburban home and later onto a mental hospital, her depression (for it is soon clear this is what it was) morphs into a quite different and more sinister force. It is perhaps appropriate, given the first person narration, that this change is not commented upon or analysed, but it further splits the novel down the middle.
Naturally, a narrator who is feeling empty inside is going to create some stultifying prose, and this is ironically a core part of what the novel does well – communicate Esther’s state of mind. But the overwhelming impression is of numbness. Plath captures Greenwood’s inability to seriously connect with the present or the future, particularly effectively through her fanciful and constantly changing life plans, showing her lack of real connection with her life.
One of the sharp counterpoints which flashes through this numbness is the acid vein of man-hatred which is directed in some way at every male character. At one point, Esther meets a ‘woman-hater’ – a sudden description which is not explained – and all the novel’s men inflict some kind of pain upon her.
Whether it is a cause or a result of this man-hatred, Esther has a similar horror of motherhood and children. All domesticity (and even most sexuality) is hateful, but it is the pram in the hallway that elicits a special reserve of repulsion. Esther’s go-to image is medical glass cases filled with foetuses at different stages of development, which she sees before the novel’s action begins. These are the first, ghostly and ghastly ‘bell jars’ of containment, disconnection and stasis which later explicitly come out the metaphor for Esther’s psychological experience.
These themes, and the understanding of depression, are the novel’s strengths, but they are sometimes wielded with a heavy hand that impairs the effect of the novel as a whole. In the hilarious Guardian series “Digested Classics”, John Crace comes up with some satirical gems which directly capture my objections to it. I leave you with this cocked-eyebrow look at the portion of the novel when Esther is undergoing treatment in a mental hospital (Read the rest here):
“I hate my mother,” I said, for the first and last time showing any insight or interest in my condition. “You need some more ECT (electro-convulsive therapy),” she replied, “though my ECT will be a touchy-feely feminine ECT, not like the treatment that electrocuting male chauvinist bastard gave you.”
I could finally breathe. The bell jar had lifted, though you wouldn’t have noticed it from my writing, which was as lifeless and un-self aware as ever. ”
p.s. If you missed the cover controversy, you may like this suggestion which should at least be safe from angry interpretation: