I tried to read The Bell Jar in high school, but didn’t get very far. I had just finished reading (and loved) Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and so I thought I would like The Bell Jar, but I couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t understand what made a person like Esther Greenwood tick. She kept doing things that to high school me seemed like really obvious bad ideas, like accept an invitation to drink with a crowd of really sketchy-looking guys or eat seafood that’s been sitting under hot lights for a couple of hours. Adult me knows that these kinds of decisions are part peer pressure, part curiosity, and part nihilism. I also just didn’t understand what Plath was trying to do by showing the less glamorous side of being a young adult, but now I kind of get it. I think this is a book that’s specifically about young adult angst, so high school kids might find it hard to relate.
Unlike Girl, Interrupted, The Bell Jar isn’t just a book about depression, it’s also about making important adult decisions about sex and careers. Esther Greenwood’s depression stems from her weighing her life options and being unable to decide because to choose any one option, she’d have to give something else up. She could pursue a family, but she’d have to give up exciting affairs. She could pursue exciting affairs, but she’d have to give up a sense of home and continuing emotional support. She could try for a professional career in her field, but she’s worried she’s not talented or motivated enough to succeed. She could go for an easy 9-to-5 job with little responsibility, but it’s so boring she can’t focus. Esther is caught in the middle: she’s not tough enough to claw her way to the top of the field she loves, but she’s too much in love with literature to throw her pride away and take a secure boring job. Besides, everything takes some kind of effort, and Esther’s lazy af.
Well, that might not be fair to say… what looks like laziness is actually a combination of two things: passion for literature (the other side of the coin being apathy towards anything that’s not literature), and crushing depression. Continue reading