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.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Publication date: 1966

What’s it about?Wide Sargasso Sea

The novel acts as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and imagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester: the ‘madwoman in the attic’. It traces her story from her childhood in the Caribbean through to her marriage, its deterioration and her subsequent experiences in England.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was a birthday present.

I’ve also made the decision that, from next year, I won’t continue to list the source of my books, as I’m not sure this necessarily adds to the value of the blog posts. They’re either from the university library or the public library, are a present or already on my bookshelves, or I’ve had to buy them especially. I’m not sure there’s much more to say!

What did I learn from it?

Having never read Jane Eyre, I obviously picked up intriguing hints about it from this account of the first Mrs Rochester. I guess most people coming to Wide Sargasso Sea will have read Bronte’s novel previously, and will perhaps see Antoinette’s story from an alternative perspective; but this is my first encounter with her, and so when I come to read Jane Eyre (as I will inevitably have to do at some point), I imagine I’ll view the characters of Jane and Rochester rather differently.

In factual terms, I also learned a certain amount (as always!) about the historical period in which the book is set: that is, shortly after the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire. We see the effect the Slavery Abolition Act had on Caribbean inhabitants of all races, mainly through the eyes of a Creole woman but also through those of an ‘outsider’, Rochester.

Funnily enough, the book I picked up to read after this one was Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair: totally by chance, I promise, unless my subconscious was having a laugh. And it’s thanks to Jean Rhys’s novel that I was able to recognise one of the chapter headings, ‘Thornfield Hall’, as Rochester’s home in England. I’m sure more connections will strike me as I read on.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It reminded me of the reactions I’d had to key characters in two previous Book Diaries reads: the first Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you’ve read those two posts, you’ll recall that I didn’t particularly like either of those characters. At the time I thought this was perhaps because I am an introverted book lover and they are both extroverted party girls; it’s natural that I should stick up for the quiet and the downtrodden against the wild, loud, confident ones who seem to rule the Earth.

However, this novel challenged those feelings. I felt hugely sympathetic towards Antoinette Cosway – and yet at the end I realised that, in the story of Jane Eyre, she must play the part of the wild first wife in much the same way as Rebecca does in du Maurier’s novel. (At least, I have to assume so.) Why, then did I feel so much understanding towards her when I couldn’t towards the other?

The most obvious explanation is that, in Wide Sargasso Sea, we are being told the story from her own perspective, not that of a man or a (biased) successor. Rochester (who is unnamed in this novel) does take up the narration in Part Two, but this is only after we have heard Antoinette describe her own experiences, and seen at first hand how she has been affected and treated by those around her. Rather than feel sympathy for Rochester, therefore, we may view his attitude to her as a further exacerbation of her troubles; although he does appear to have been deceived by his family and friends regarding the marriage, this does not absolve him of all responsibility for the situation.

I’ve been reminded of the valuable lesson that we should not judge another person until we have heard their story from their own lips.

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

As I read the novel, I found myself utterly absorbed by the gorgeous verbal pictures Rhys paints of the Caribbean. The vast majority of the book is set in either Jamaica or Dominica, and as the islands are Antoinette’s home, and she feels a strong attachment to them, the overwhelming impression I receive is one of joy, beauty and belonging. The heat, the aromas, the landscape… all contribute to an image of a place that I find myself thinking it would be a delight to visit.

And so I’ve found a potential focus for my next big holiday. Having just come back from a three-week road trip, it’s going to be some time before we can afford to go off on another long-haul jaunt – but the Caribbean has just found its way to the top of my list for when we do make those plans.

Given that I need to write an update in three months’ time to say whether or not I achieved this change (which clearly isn’t going to be possible), I will commit to at least starting up a holiday fund: putting away a certain amount of money each month towards this specific goal. It may be small, but it’s a step in the right direction: and that’s really what the Book Diaries are all about.

A musical interlude

I’m not entirely happy with this song choice, as it captures Rochester’s view of Antoinette rather than her true nature. However, the vibe of the track fits the overall mood of the book – hot and sultry – so I’m sticking with it.

It’s Black Magic Woman by Santana.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoos NestTitle: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest24-book challenge
Author: Ken Kesey
Publication date: 1962
Genre: Fiction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestWhat’s it about?

Randle Patrick McMurphy – loud, swaggering, and rebellious – arrives on the ward of a mental hospital and almost instantly locks horns with the ‘Big Nurse’, Miss Ratched. But what begins as sport soon develops into out-and-out war between the two, as they vie for superiority and control.

Narrated by Chief Bromden, one of the ward’s long-term residents, the story follow McMurphy’s struggles against authority and his attempts to understand and make a difference to the lives of the other inmates. We come up against questions of personal freedom, self sacrifice, and the point at which individuality and insanity intersect – and there are no easy answers.

As McMurphy becomes more and more embroiled in his battle of wits with the Big Nurse, we realise it cannot be long before catastrophe strikes. And so – after many arguments, confrontations, and escapades – it does. But, running in parallel to the inevitable tragedy, we also see, in the Chief’s own narrative, a glimmer of hope. McMurphy’s actions have not been in vain.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I finally got an account set up in my local university library, and got the book out of there. I just need to remember to take it back, as I don’t have any visits planned before the due date; so I’ll need to make a special trip… or renew it!

What did I learn from it?

I learned that I find this subject fascinating! My work is based in and around medical research, so anything with a medical setting tends to grab my interest. Also, as someone who’s quit the 9-5 in order to work freelance, I’m drawn to any writing that deals with issues of personal freedom / being different / opting out of ‘the system’. So this book ticked both boxes.

As with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I learned a little about medical practices of days gone by. In this case, however, it was intriguing to see a different twist on issues of privacy and consent: not a factual account of the abuse of trust, but a fictional one – which meant that the author could go much further, and dig much deeper into the possible consequences of such actions.

How did it make me see the world differently?

In terms of the value placed on freedom and individuality, the book spoke to feelings I already possess. I have a huge thing about not getting caught in what Kesey refers to as ‘The Combine’: the abstract authority that governs society and wants to put people in neat little boxes and keep them there, the better to control them. So I was half expecting the book to give me a ‘courage boost’ for thumbing my nose to social convention, speaking my mind in the company of those who would seek to squash me, and being loud and proud about being different.

But then, the more I read of McMurphy, the more I started to question whether the loud approach is the right way for me. I’m a massive introvert – I hate drawing attention to myself, not because I’m scared of what people might think, but because it’s so exhausting to have to fend off the inevitable questions and criticisms. I don’t know that I’m self-sacrificing enough to make a big noise purely so that others can find inspiration, if it ultimately means that I get noticed, worn down, and potentially squashed for good.

That doesn’t feel like a particularly admirable thing to realise about myself, but I take comfort in the fact that it is in the story of the Chief that we introverts can find motivation. The Chief is the quintessential image of a quiet type: believed to be deaf and dumb for the majority of his time in the hospital, he nevertheless finds the courage to recover his sense of self, take a stand when it truly matters, and eventually strike out on his own.

I need to remind myself that it’s OK to be quiet.

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

I think that the best way forward for me is just to keep on trying to do what I want to do. Not shouting about my rights to freedom, but showing by example that it is possible to lead a life that is different to the one everyone expects you to lead.

In my case, that means more writing. Specifically, my supernatural novel. I’ve been juggling ideas around in my head for months now, without making any progress beyond the fiddly little details of my imaginary world – and the time has come to get a move on and start writing.

So, my contribution towards a world where we can all be free to be ourselves is to commit myself, not to an institution, but to the act of writing. Pen on paper; fingers on keyboard; however it manifests itself. I will not tell myself I can’t do it, that there is no point, that it will be rubbish. There are too many people in the world who are quite capable of doing that for me – and I refuse to join their ranks.

Rather than try to lead others to freedom, I will simply continue tracing my own path – and hope that this simple act will enable others to follow the trail too.

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!