The Bell Jar

The Bell JarTitle: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Publication date: 1963

What’s it about?The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood wins a scholarship to work as an intern on a New York fashion magazine, and hopes to subsequently pursue a career in writing. When this does not take off as hoped, she spirals into depression; the novel then charts her experience of mental illness within the psychiatric hospital system.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the public library.

What did I learn from it?

Some time earlier in the year I became very aware that a lot of the books I’d picked for 2016’s Book Diaries were written by (predominantly American) men. This came to a head when I read On the Road, which describes the experiences of young men travelling – and what I hadn’t realised was that some of the characters indulge in these road trips during college vacations.

I realised I’d read far more about the college experiences of men than women, and so The Bell Jar was a refreshing change in this respect. In it I got to see more of how women approached this time in their lives – and, specifically, what restrictions they faced that were not placed on men. For example, Esther and her fellow magazine interns live in a women-only hotel: even the (male) doctor who attends them when they become ill after a food poisoning outbreak suggests that he is only permitted to be there because of the urgency of the situation.

Towards the end of the novel, Esther visits a doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm, in an attempt to free herself from the limitations that a sexual relationship would otherwise threaten her with (pregnancy, marriage to the wrong man). This was a salutary reminder of the impact birth control had on the lives of women who wanted to be more than just a wife and mother.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Given the above, it is not surprising that I found myself with a renewed appreciation of all the advances that have been made by feminism over the decades. Esther’s experiences are already an improvement on earlier times, but 50+ years on from the publication of the novel I am able to pursue a career of my choosing, I am able to live happily child free, and my bank account is mine to do with as I wish.

This is all the more meaningful as I related quite strongly to Esther’s experiences of mental illness, having suffered from depression for a large part of my life (although the extent of mine was nowhere near as extreme as hers). As she talks about her early academic success, her ability to put on a competent face when inside she is struggling, and her difficulty in finding her place in the world as this period of her life draws to a close, I heard uncanny echoes of my own path through life – with the difference that I, now, have many more options available to me.

That said, we still have a long way to go. I recall going to see a (male) doctor, sometime in my mid-twenties, and telling him I thought I was depressed. (My experiences over subsequent years would come to bear this out.) His response? ‘I think you’ve just got yourself into a bit of a tizzy.’

The Bell Jar is a reminder of the importance of fighting for our rights, if we are to make the most of the lives we have been given and not waste our valuable gifts. It is a tragedy that Sylvia Plath did not survive to share more of her gifts with the world.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I put off starting this book as I thought it would be incredibly depressing; however, I have been reminded yet again not to make pre-judgements about books, as in the end I absolutely loved it! For a novel about depression and death it is remarkably full of life and vitality; Plath’s wit sparkles through, and it is the first book I’ve read since Fahrenheit 451 that I found genuinely un-put-down-able.

I’d decided to get it out of the library rather than buy it for myself, as I didn’t want to spend money on something I assumed I would find a struggle. However, I’m now determined to buy a copy to keep – and this made me realise that this would be a fitting tribute to pay to all the books I’ve read for this blog.

This year has been about trying to support the local libraries, but the idea of having an entire bookshelf (or bookcase) dedicated to my Book Diaries collection is very enticing. I will therefore go through my list and note down which books I’m not in possession of – and make an effort to acquire them.

A musical interlude

Although the Police’s Can’t Stand Losing You was the first track to come to mind for this book, I didn’t feel it had quite the right vibe; it seemed to oversimplify and even misrepresent Esther’s situation. I then started to think about the broader themes of the book rather than merely her suicide attempt, and came up with this number by James Brown.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Title: A Vindication of the Rights of WomanBook Challenge
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft
Publication date: 1792
Genre: Non fiction (philosophy; feminism)

What’s it about?A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft’s book is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. The author is responding to the widely held belief of the time that women should not receive an equal education to men, and the majority of the work focuses on the importance of education to women.

Feminism was not a known term or philosophy in the late 18th century. It is not even clear whether Wollstonecraft herself believed men and women to be necessarily equal in all spheres; her main point is that, if women are deemed unequal to men, then they cannot be held responsible for the superficial way they behave. To educate them, she insists, would be to equip them with the same rights – and therefore responsibilities – as men, and society could only benefit as a result.

The book was intended as the first of three volumes, but sadly the author died before she could complete the rest. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly direct attack on the educational system of the time, and lays the responsibility for change – and the betterment of society – firmly at the door of the men in power.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was another one from the university library, which I took out at the same time as Faust. When I went back to return Faust, having already renewed both books once, I ended up spending an entire afternoon in the library finishing this book, so that I could return it at the same time and not have to renew it again. There’s nothing like a deadline to get you working!

What did I learn from it?

I learned a fair amount about the educational system in the UK in the late 18th century, and how that has developed into what we have today. For example, in the 21st century the term ‘public school’ in the UK (although not in the US) means what many of us would actually refer to as a ‘private school’. But back in Wollstonecraft’s day, the word ‘public’ differentiated these schools (predominantly all-male and boarding) from private education carried out at home.

Wollstonecraft raises issues with both systems – boarding and home schooling – and states that it would benefit both girls and boys to attend co-educational day schools. This would enable them to mix with each other, allowing them to see the opposite sex as companions rather than strangers, and would also help both sexes remain aware of the importance of the domestic sphere.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As with several of the other books I’ve read in recent months, there’s a recognition that, although we have clearly made progress since the author’s day, human nature is such that bad things will still happen.

Women, at least in the UK, are now educated in essentially the same way as men, and many go on to achievements in traditionally male spheres in far greater numbers than was possible in 1792. However, for every woman (or man…) who is keen to develop themselves with a view to fixing the world’s issues, there is another who prefers to skim over the hard work in favour of surface niceties.

I have an optimistic view of human nature, and I am not convinced that this is down to any innate defect in individuals. Rather, I suspect it is a matter of what we are raised to believe. Are we encouraged to think that we hold the power to change our lives, or are we suckered into a hamster wheel of meaningless, underpaid, overworked jobs? If the latter, it’s not surprising that we fall back on easy treats and superficial cares to make life bearable. Ironically, it may even be the very system of education desired by the likes of Wollstonecraft that is now depriving people of the habit of thinking for themselves.

The question is how everyone can be encouraged to realise that they (a) have the power to act independently and (b) can actually make a difference. Everyone has some quality that makes them stand out from the rest, even if that is not in the areas Wollstonecraft envisaged. And if everyone were to recognise their power for good and their ability to create change, the chances of their turning the other way would be much smaller.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’m pretty well educated, but I am just as guilty as the next person at listening overmuch to what others tell me. Now, obviously that is not in itself a bad thing! We need to take on board others’ views if we wish to develop a tolerant, balanced perspective of the world.

But what can happen, when you try to honour other people’s attitudes too much, is that you lose sight of your own way. Even – or perhaps especially – when those you’re listening to are good, helpful, insightful people, it’s easy to get caught up in the shoulds, the oughts and the mustn’ts. By paying too much attention to what others think, we lose the ability to discern what we, deep down, in our hearts feel to be true. The constant stream of likes, favourites and shares on social media only adds to this problem: our inner wisdom gets drowned out by the noise, and it can be a struggle to regain it. ‘Other people who had this view also thought…‘ could be the algorithm for our times.

I decided at the start of this year that my word for 2015 would be ‘Intuition’. I would use this as a focus for homing in on what I believe to be my truth, my way in the world, and not let my path be muddied by what the masses around me might want from me. To some extent I’ve achieved this, but I realised recently that I still have an inclination to ask others what I should do when, really, I already know what I want to do and am only seeking validation.

And so I am taking the step of disengaging from some of the communities I have been frequenting: mostly online groups populated by people just like me. I’ve grown too used to asking what they think before I do something new, and I have far too many ideas to be checking each and every one of them before I start. So I’m removing the temptation to do that, and will be leaving a number of these groups in the next few days. I will still seek practical help when I need it – but I won’t let my own truth be tempered by the many other truths out there.

I intend to write my own algorithm for life.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!