The Book Report: Megan Sass on “The Bell Jar”


The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. The series will be celebrating its second anniversary onAugust 13th with special guests Micaela Blei, Chelsea Hodson, Miracle Jones, Jennifer L Knox, Maris Kreizman, and Krystal Languell, and co-hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher. 7pm, The Gallery at LPR.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
(A book report by Megan Sass)

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, is a 244 page novel about a chick who is dying to lose her virginity. No literally, she keeps trying to kill herself. It’s basically the autobiography of Sylvia Plath, but Plath doesn’t want you to know it’s her, so she pretends instead it’s the story of some Jew named Esther Greenwood. Actually, the character of Esther’s not a Jew, so right off the bat, Plath has screwed up by naming her WASPy lead character ESTHER GREENWOOD.

When the book starts, Esther is spending a month in New York City for some super-special magazine program. She’s a middle-class skinny white chick, so as you’d imagine, her life is really tough. Imagine if all the broads from Sex & the City were growing more and more suicidal every episode, and that’s basically the first 111 pages of this book. From the first sentence, Esther’s already annoyed because some other Jews named the Rosenbergs have the gall to be in the news all the time for getting the electric chair. The book begins (NOTE: The following quotes from the book should be imagined in the voice of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, or, for an even more entitled feel, Clueless’s Cher):

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 . . . 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.

Esther is already pretty miserable, but that doesn’t keep her from offering up some really solid opinions on a number of things. As the first part of the book progresses, we get to share in some real Esther Greenwood gems. Like her take on men’s clothing on page 11:

The thought of dancing with that little runt in his orange suede elevator shoes and mingy T-shirt and droopy blue sports coat made me laugh. If there’s anything I look down on, it’s a man in a blue outfit.

I mean, who doesn’t, Esther? Everybody knows blue clothing is for women, queers, and Policemen, am I right?!

On page 24, Esther talks about how hard it is to be like super skinny:

I’m not sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else. No matter how much I eat, I never put on weight. With one exception, I’ve been the same weight for ten years . . . My favorite dishes are full of butter and cheese and sour cream.

Here’s how Esther explains the best way to make buddies on page 44:

There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.

Sometimes, Esther gets all deep and stuff, like on page 18:

The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

Once Esther leaves New York City, the book becomes about the protagonist’s half-assed suicide attempts. Esther becomes so apathetic about life that she can’t even commit suicide effectively. Plath manages to take the exciting world of depression, and make it about as boring and selfserving as any old autoimmune disorder, like lupus or irritable bowel syndrome. (On second thought, irritable bowel syndrome can be pretty exciting, what with the constant thrill of danger, the looming question, “Will I shit my pants today?” (That is, after all, why the disease is called, “I B S.”) The conflict of The Bell Jar is more annoying than exciting, like Crohn’s Disease.)

To be fair, these are my thoughts upon reading the book for the second time in my life. The first time I read it, ten years ago, I thought it was terrific. But this was when I was 17, back when suicide was cool, and the most effective way to get attention. In fact, I was so into this book that for Halloween I considered dressing up in a hospital gown, putting a bell jar over my head and trick-or-treating as Sylvia Plath. This was before I had yet to experience clinical depression for myself, and thought mental illness was some sort of super power that allowed you to write great works of art or philosophy, a la Nietzsche or Amanda Bynes. But now, at the age of 27, having dealt with what depression actually feels like, Plath’s novel seems to constantly poke me in the shoulder, going, “Hey, hey, hey, remember how terrible being depressed feels? Remember when you too were a sad virgin with her whole hopeless life in front of her?”

But this isn’t even the biggest reason I’ve found no sympathy for the protagonist Esther, or for Plath herself. The main reason I don’t care about Plath’s feelings is because we hung out this one time, and she was a real jerk. We decided to have a girls’ day, you know, do each other’s nails, read poems out loud and eat sweets. The nail part was fine, but all her poems were about her father and how she secretly wanted to have sex with him. And I was like, “Listen, girl, it’s not a secret anymore if you tell the whole world about it in all these poems you keep writing.” What was worse was when we decided to bake cookies. This bitch kept sticking her head in the oven and I was all like, “Hey, if you keep checking them like that they’re never going to finish!” It was almost as bad as the time I went swimming with Virginia Woolf. We were playing Marco Polo and I kept yelling “Marco!” but this twat never yelled back “Polo!” and so I finally opened my eyes to be like, “Bitch, what’s up?” and she was nowhere to be found. I mean, what the fuck?

So anyway, I guess the the moral of the story is, if you’re feeling depressed, don’t be a woman. Try to like, be a man, and have a penis (and stuff). And if that doesn’t work, well . . . there’s always suicide.

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