Monday, March 14, 2011

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Burden Of The Mind

Last week I read a short story online about a person who is losing his mind and it was troubling. That led me to think about works that deal with a faltering mind. Writers take their own experiences and also what they see and observe and create their works, even if it may be fiction. It may be their hurt, anger, some one else's misfortune, be what it may, it also pre-supposes that their mind is in someway taking it all in with a certain lucidity, so that they can bring it out later. But what if the mind itself is not in control, or what if a person whom a writer sees is losing his mind, how does the writer  try to explain what is going on or what happened in such a case? There have been several works in this regard (கோபிகிருஷ்ணன் ஆக்கங்கள், கன்னி நாவல் நினைவுக்கு வருகின்ற உடனடியாக ). From what I have read, these works start at the point where the mind has already collapsed and is at an extreme boiling point and try to illustrate as much as possible what is happening in that distorted mind. But can one tell with almost frightening lucidity (at least it felt to me that way), what happened to himself/herself when she had a mental break down? That's what Sylvia Plath's Bell jar does.

Part fiction, part auto biographical this novel narrates a young girl 'Esther Greenwood's descent into mental illness. This is Plath's only novel. Esther has just come to New York from a suburb and is working in a magazine. As the novel start she seems to be a pretty normal girl, confident and secure. Her family too seems to be a stable one with the normal preoccupation with academics, but nothing unusual about it. But what Plath narrates next in a no-nonsense way, how Esther slips into some sort of depression and tries to fight it is chilling. Right from the party, where Esther starts getting the first symptoms to her leaving the job, her attempts at suicide, getting admitted to a hospital are told in a very dispassionate tone as if describing normal every day activities. The crystal clear manner in which they are told is even more disturbing when you think about the fact that Plath too suffered from some sort of depression and some events in the novel has a parallel with her own life. As a reader, you first encounter a very normal, happy, spirited young girl, the kind of person whom we probably encounter throughout our life.You see a young person, starting out on her career, her entire life ahead of her, with all its joys and sorrows and then you slowly see her breakdown, and because it is so close to life in the sense it could happen to someone you know, maybe even ourself, you find yourself being affected and even scared by it. You know something very bad is happening but are powerless to stop it. Like seeing cancer spread everywhere. This is a very disturbing read and I personally have not been able to read it after the first time, even now I am writing from memory, could not even flip through the pages just to refresh my memory, left the book on the desk after taking it.  It is beyond my limited vocabulary to explain what I actually felt and beyond my mental fortitude to even explain what happens in the novel as it is as some sort of synopsis. The book is like holding hot coals and that's why I have not mentioned much about what actually happens in the novel except in a few sentences above and I see this is more of a rambling from me instead of some sort of coherent post, but this is the only way I can try to tell about this novel. You actually do not know how much of what is mentioned in the novel actually happened to Plath, but what's terrifying is that it can happen, will happen, has happened, is happening to others even if not to Plath. 

The novel ends on a possibly optimistic note as Esther goes in for her interview with the doctor which would decide if she can leave the hospital. One would think that the novel would have acted as a sort of catharsis for Plath. But as we know, life nearly never follows the script that we would like to see. So, in this case, Plath committed suicide about a month after the novel was published. Ironic isn't it. Maybe it just shows again the inadequacy of words to express what actually we feel, what we felt, maybe the burden of the mind was too much was Plath to bear (David Foster Wallace comes to mind again). But whatever happened, I got an incredible amount of respect for Plath, for confronting what to me personally, is a person's most difficult opponent, one's own mind, the traitor within, the mind which can lead us to great heights, but if it rebels against us, it is mostly a losing cause for the person to fight it. Some books are so good, but very disturbing in some way, that you feel unsure about referring them.  Similarly I don't know if I could refer this work to somebody off hand, but if you feel you can put up with what I have mentioned in the post, go ahead but be warned. I know nothing about poetry and have read zilch, but if I ever get an inclination towards it, Sylvia Plath's works would be the first ones I read.


  1. A very nice review. I started reading Bell Jar a long time ago, but haven't finished it yet.
    Do you have a chance of reading Umberto Eco's 'The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana'. In this novel, a person loses his memory because of stroke. Eco had written this novel with very unique wasys.


  2. Hi dj,
    Thanks for the comments. I haven't read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. It's on the ever growing list of, books to be read. You comments on it have moved it up the order in the list :). Thanks for the reco.