Internet is to literature what a hamburger is to a steak. Fast food. It is in this hashing vein that I want to bring you The Bell Jar: chopped up into a few smoldering quotes.
This well-known semi-autobiographic novel by the poet Sylvia Plath is about depression, suicidal feelings, trouble with other girls, complex would-be relations with men, and more. Of course I’ll be focusing on the depression side here.
The Bell Jar was published in 1963 when Plath was 30: a month later, she killed herself. She had been using antidepressants at the time, but clearly this hadn’t helped her. Some people blame her husband, poet Ted Hughes, for her suicide. But to be honest, I think that’s nonsense. I think suicidal tendencies were inherent to her personality. And just like I would never blame anyone else for my own two suicide attempts, I cannot imagine that if Plath had survived she would have blamed anyone but herself.
For background info, start from the Wikipedia pages about Sylvia Plath and about The Bell Jar. And of course there are plenty reviews and discussions of this famous (or maybe I should say: notorious) book online. For example The Bell Jar at 40: Sylvia Plath’s YA novel reaches middle age, by Emily Gould at the Poetry Foundation site.
Never read The Bell Jar?
And you are, yes I already thought so, far too depressed to muster the energy and perseverance to read a whole book? Then my selected quotes will take you through it in a few giants’ steps – in less than ten minutes. Maybe in this hamburger format it’s worth the effort? I do have a good dressing to go with it, too:
The song 2 O’Clock in the Morning by Swati (Swati Sharma). A singer who really deserves more attention than she seems to be to be getting. She does have a Facebook page here, and you can find some of her songs on her Myspace page.
This song by Swati is about a girl who in the middle of the night is halfway up climbing to a New York rooftop to… Well, you can guess.
As usual, you’ll have the click my “Play” button to hear it.
(if the player does not work, install Flash)
Please now do your homework for today. Try reading some snippets. Just see if there’s something you recognize in these lines that Sylvia Plath wrote down almost fifty years ago.
The Bell Jar – In a Few Quotes
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.
from chapter 2:
The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cars were making noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster.
from chapter 3:
I told Doreen I would not go to the show or the luncheon or the film premiere, but that I would not go to Coney Island either, I would stay in bed. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.
from chapter 4:
The next thing I had a view of was somebody’s shoe.
It was a stout shoe of cracked black leather and quite old, with tiny air holes in a scalloped pattern over the toe and a dull polish, and it was pointed at me. It seemed to be placed on a hard green surface that was hurting my right cheekbone.
I kept very still, waiting for a clue that would give me some notion of what to do.
A little to the left of the shoe I saw a vague heap of blue cornflowers on a white ground and this made me want to cry. It was the sleeve of my own bathrobe I was looking at, and my left hand lay pale as a cod at the end of it.
“She’s all right now.”
The voice came from a cool, rational region far above my head. For a minute I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, and then I thought it was strange. It was a man’s voice, and no men were allowed to be in our hotel at any time of the night or day.
from chapter 7:
For the first time in my life, sitting there in the soundproof heart of the UN building between Constantin who could play tennis as well as simultaneously interpret and the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.
The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.
I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
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 another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, 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 one 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.
from chapter 8:
“Well?” I rapped out, thinking, You can’t coddle these sick people, it’s the worst thing for them, it’ll spoil them to bits.
“Nothing,” Buddy said in a pale, still voice.
“Neurotic, ha!” I let out a scornful laugh. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
Buddy put his hand on mine.
“Let me fly with you.”
from chapter 10:
I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to. After a while I heard the telephone ringing in the downstairs hall. I stuffed the pillow into my ears and gave myself five minutes. Then I lifted my head from its bolt hole. The ringing had stopped.
Almost at once it started up again.
from chapter 11:
The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
from chapter 11:
The trouble about jumping was that if you didn’t pick the right number of stories, you might still be alive when you hit bottom. I thought seven stories must be a safe distance.
from chapter 12:
Sitting in the front seat, between Dodo and my mother, I felt dumb and subdued.
Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently.
from chapter 12:
I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights.
I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.
I looked down at the two flesh-colored Band-Aids forming a cross on the calf of my right leg.
That morning I had made a start.
I had locked myself in the bathroom, and run a tub full of warm water, and taken out a Gillette blade.
When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surf gaudy as poppies.
But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at.
It would take two motions. One wrist, then the other wrist. Three motions, if you counted changing the razor from hand to hand. Then I would step into the tub and lie down.
I moved in front of the medicine cabinet. If I looked in the mirror while I did it, it would be like watching somebody else, in a book or a play.
But the person in the mirror was paralyzed and too stupid to do a thing.
Then I thought maybe I ought to spill a little blood for practice, so I sat on the edge of the tub and crossed my right ankle over my left knee. Then I lifted my right hand with the razor and let it drop of its own weight, like a guillotine, onto the calf of my leg.
I felt nothing. Then I felt a small, deep thrill, and a bright seam of red welled up at the lip of the slash. The blood gathered darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle into the cup of my black patent leather shoe.
I thought of getting into the tub then, but I realized my dallying had used up the better part of the morning, and that my mother would probably come home and find me before I was done.
So I bandaged the cut, packed up my Gillette blades and caught the eleven-thirty bus to Boston.
from chapter 13:
After a discouraging time of walking about with the silk cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed and tried pulling the cord tight.
But each time I would get the cord so tight I could feel a rushing in my ears and a flush of blood in my face, my hands would weaken and let go, and I would be all right again.
Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.
I would simply have to ambush it with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all. And when people found out my mind had gone, as they would have to, sooner or later, in spite of my mother’s guarded tongue, they would persuade her to put me into an asylum where I could be cured.
Only my case was incurable.
I had bought a few paperbacks on abnormal psychology at the drugstore and compared my symptoms with the symptoms in the books, and sure enough, my symptoms tallied with the most hopeless cases.
The only thing I could read, besides the scandal sheets, were those abnormal- psychology books. It was as if some slim opening had been left, so I could learn all I needed to know about my case to end it in the proper way.
I wondered, after the hanging fiasco, if I shouldn’t just give it up and turn myself over to the doctors, and then I remembered Doctor Gordon and his private shock machine. Once I was locked up they could use that on me all the time.
And I thought of how my mother and brother and friends would visit me, day after day, hoping I would be better. Then their visits would slacken off, and they would give up hope. They would grow old. They would forget me.
They would be poor, too.
They would want me to have the best of care at first, so they would sink all their money in a private hospital like Doctor Gordon’s. Finally, when the money was used up, I would be moved to a state hospital, with hundreds of people like me, in a big cage in the basement.
The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you.
from chapter 14:
“Don’t you want to get up today?”
“No.” I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.
“You see, it’s normal.” I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect it, the way I always did. “You see, it’s normal, what do you keep taking it for?”
I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.
from chapter 20:
Doctor Nolan said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell. My mother’s face floated to mind, a pale reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her.
“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.”
A bad dream.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
A bad dream.
There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder.
“All right, Esther.”
I rose and followed her to the open door.
Pausing, for a brief breath, on the threshold, I saw the silver-haired doctor who had told me about the rivers and the Pilgrims on my first day, and the pocked, cadaverous face of Miss Huey, and eyes I thought I had recognized over white masks.
The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.
• tip: If you really got all the way down to here, maybe now you do want to read the full Bell Jar. You can get the book from Amazon.
If you have an E-book reader that handles PDF files, you can also simply download the book in PDF format (from nubuk.com).