Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath


...And then a few weeks before being published under a pseudonym in 1963, Sylvia Plath closed all the windows in her kitchen and sealed the gaps around the doors with wet towels, turned on the gas and stuck her head in the oven. A few months earlier, Sylvia had left her husband, poet Ted Hughes, after discovering he was having an affair with Assia Wevill, the wife of a fellow poet. A few years later, Assia Wevill also committed suicide using exactly the same method as Sylvia.
It might seem an obvious or even a stupid thing to say but you don't know how good The Bell Jar is until you read it. It's no great revelation to say, even, that it's brilliant.

As the years go by, perceptions change but the song, however, remains the same. In reading The Bell Jar from the vantage point of 2016 it's relatively easy to argue that Sylvia Plath wasn't 'crazy' in the slightest and in fact her reaction to the world around her was a perfectly understandable one. It could even be argued that even though it was by her own hand that she took her life, Sylvia Plath was in actual fact murdered - not by any one individual but by the world.

A lot of contempt has been poured upon Ted Hughes since Sylvia's death and justifiably so I would say. He knew what Sylvia was like and how she was, so what effect did he think his affair might have upon her? He is guilty in my eyes of being an accomplice to manslaughter. So too is the doctor who first administered electric shock treatment to Sylvia. If he had been doing his job properly he wouldn't have so readily administered ECT and in such a high 'dose'.

From what I know of ECT (and I've been reliably informed) it's still not fully understood what happens to the brain after being zapped by electricity. It's like throwing a rock into a pool. You see the splash and the ripples but you can't see where that rock goes once it's under the surface of the water. You can't see what it might disturb once it hits the bed of the pool.
Many people view ECT as being barbaric whilst others have proclaimed the benefits of it. Sylvia Plath's case would seem to fall into both schools of thought. On reading The Bell Jar it's apparent her initial treatment had an entirely negative effect and led to her first suicide attempt. When administered later in much gentler doses and under 'caring' supervision, the treatment has a more positive effect, lifting 'the bell jar' under which she's been trapped.

Sylvia's thoughts and feelings regarding the execution of the Rosenbergs are absolutely intelligent and sane ones. Famously, it's how The Bell Jar begins: 'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York'. She then goes on to say: '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 this, to Sylvia ending up (against her will) being given electroconvulsive therapy is nothing less than tragic. Criminally tragic.

The subject of the Rosenbergs comes up again later on in the book when on the evening of their execution, Sylvia (or rather, her alter ego in the book) says to a fellow student intern 'Isn't it awful about the Rosenbergs?' Her fellow intern agrees: 'Yes! It's awful such people should be alive. I'm so glad they're going to die'.
This isn't, of course, what Sylvia meant when she posed the question but it speaks volumes and leaps out from the page as an indication of where Sylvia is in relation to society and where all the other people around her are.
Just because she's estranged from the prevailing orthodoxy and social mind-set, does it mean that she's wrong? Of course not. In actual fact, depression (which is what Sylvia falls into) is a very sane response to such circumstances. As Freud said, anxiety is the only real emotion. Add to this the generally confusing times that she was growing up in, what with the cold war, patriarchy, conservatism, male oppression, the sexual revolution and so on, Sylvia's reaction is perfectly reasonable.

Much later on in the book, after Sylvia's mother suggests they can act as though her time in the asylum was just a bad dream, Sylvia comes to understand that 'To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream'.
This is the point at which it's clear that Sylvia is on her way to freedom and to becoming her own woman. The point at which she is on the way to recognising the beat of her own heart that throughout the book has been saying to her: 'I am, I am, I am...'
John Serpico

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