Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Bell Jar is concerned with the inner workings of the mind and the darkness that lies within. It chronicles Esther Greenwood's descent into depression during one dark summer, and begins to hint at the possibility of her recovery near the end. Esther finds herself in New York City, working as an intern for a ladies' magazine, and after a series of minor setbacks and strange occurrences, she withdraws from her life and the world around her. After Esther receives some less than stellar mental health care, she continues to struggle, and she attempts to end her life through various means. She is ultimately unsuccessful, and following her last effort, she is committed to an asylum. She receives a series of injections, as well as a second round of shock treatments, and after a few more adventures, hesitantly advocates to return to her previous life. The book closes at her exit interview from the asylum, and we are left to wonder where Esther's life (and mood) will go from here.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I was nervous to read this book. Those of you who know me well likely know that I went through a similar experience several years ago. I discovered I suffered from anxiety and depression and felt blindsided and overwhelmed by it when I was in France, studying abroad. Like Esther, I was lost, and I struggled to find my way through what was still, hands down, one of the most difficult times of my life. Luckily, I had a strong and loving family to support me through it, as well as decent resources within my study abroad program to begin to understand what was going on. Still, even in this 21st century, it took me nearly 7 years to get to a good, solid place with my symptoms, and it's a challenge I deal with each and every day. I cannot imagine what it would have been like trying to seek out mental health care in the 1960's, what with the stigma and lack of clear medical knowledge around antidepressants, antipsychotics, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc. Mental health concerns run in my family, and I know my grandmother dealt with some unpleasant medications in her time. Given all of that context, I'm impressed that the book had as cautiously optimistic an end as it did, though it was admittedly not a cheery, triumphant conclusion. My mother once told me she'd read this book a number of times, and that we all face the dark side of existence at some point in our lives, looking death in the face and realizing it is a common end for every human. I worried that with my obsessive personality, I, too, might fixate on this book, and be stuck inside it and somehow transported back to that lost self from seven years ago.
I'm happy to report that that did not happen. I can't say I loved every minute of the book (it's Quite dark, for those who've never read it and somehow hadn't guessed from the above description and comments (were you even Paying Attention? ;) ) but I enjoyed the overall experience of reading it, and I think it is an Essential book to have in our collective literature. Sylvia expresses an unbelievably difficult thing to describe, and she does it eloquently, and with tenderness and empathy. I'm sorry to say I think she writes it as well as she does because she experienced it, and her own life came to an untimely end. I wonder - if Sylvia had been around today, would she have gotten better care? Been more hopeful about her end of maintaining your personal mental health? Had more opportunities as an independent woman to stave off her depression? But life is filled with what ifs, and we can never know for sure. All I do know for sure is that if Sylvia hadn't felt some measure of what Esther felt, she would never have been able to write this book, and that would have been a true tragedy.
- On the sadness of finishing a really great poem
"I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fir tree."
-Balalaika, instrument of seduction
My sister, Diana, pointed this part out to me, but when I came to it, I was surprised to realize I was already familiar with the passage. I went through a phase in high school where I plastered my closet doors and walls with quotes from various books I was reading, and I'm sure this was one of them, which is strange considering I had never read (or heard of) this book in high school. Mysterious! At any rate, here it is :)
"When Constantin asked if I would like to come up to his apartment to hear some balalaika records I smiled to myself. My mother had always told me never under any circumstances to go with a man to a man's rooms after an evening out, it could mean only the one thing.
'I am very fond of balalaika music,' I said." heh heh heh. naughty Esther! ;)
- Country vs. City
I loved this exchange between Esther and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Billy:
"'Remember how you asked me where I like to live best, the country or the city?'
'And you said...'
'And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?" there's more to this conversation, but I loved this response. I spend most of my time waffling between wanting a ranch with horses and a huge garden and cats and wanting a city townhouse in walking distance from all of my favorite foods from various countries and accessible to events and museums and concerts and art. I want one. I want two. I want two!
- The most accurate depiction of depression I've ever read
What struck me most about this book was how intimate Sylvia's portrayal of Esther's suffering ended up being. I felt so connected to Esther, in large part because I'd experienced similar feelings, but also because she was really the only character we cared about for the whole course of the book. These lines below might not seem as perceptive if they were written in a book from the last decade, given that depression is a much more widely understood disease (though we still have a Ways to go, folks). But for her time, and writing as a woman, Esther's simple thoughts rang so true for me. They get at the pernicious quality of depression, and the way it seeps into and poisons every thought, even the ones that used to seem so obvious and routine.
"I couldn't see the point of getting up.
I had nothing to look forward to."
"It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it."
- Soooo well disguised, Esther. OBviously not you, Sylvia ;)
Esther writes a novel (or starts to) at one point in the book:
"A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing." do you know what Else has six letters? Sylvia.
One of the first symptoms Sylvia notices is that she can't sleep. This goes on for a seemingly interminable number of days. Since I read Fight Club before this one (by Accident - Whoopsy-Daisy!) I found this particularly interesting, given that Tyler/Not-Tyler notices his insomnia before any other part of his psychotic break. Funny how little we think of the importance of sleep, and how integral a role it plays in our lives.
- Expectations vs. Reality
One of the most poignant moments in the book for me was when Esther went to her first psychiatrist. She explains her expectations:
"I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying "Ah!" in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn't, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.
Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn't sleep and why I couldn't read and why I couldn't eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.
And the reality:
"But Doctor Gordon wasn't like that at all.
"For some reason the photo [on his desk] made me furious.
I didn't see why it should be turned half toward me unless Doctor Gordon was trying to show me right away that he was married to some glamorous woman and I'd better not get any funny ideas.
Then I thought, how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card?"
I thought about this moment a lot, and how important that very first visit can be. Speaking to someone about your feelings, your deepest thoughts, can be absolutely terrifying, and the success or failure of the visit depends namely on the actions and climate your psychiatrist creates and your (chosen) response to that climate. It's so easy to say, "This is terrible. I hate this. This person could never understand." and shut down completely. I realized none of my therapists or psychiatrists have ever had personal or family photos in their offices, and I wonder if this isn't why. To keep things like this from happening. I was utterly heartbroken for Esther, and I knew exactly how she felt.
- Mental health is a two-way street
I often explain to people who aren't very familiar with mental health care, or therapy, or the like, how important it is to realize that it's a two-way street. Your therapist or psychiatrist (two Different things, FYI - therapists can do behavioral therapy, but can't prescribe medicine; psychiatrists can prescribe medicine but are less likely to speak to you at length about your feelings. this is one of my Major pet peeves, sorry for the interruption!) only knows what you decide to tell him/her. You are ultimately in control of how successful your care and treatment are. It's a partnership.
Sylvia got at this quite eloquently with this scene. Esther wrote a note to a friend and realized her handwriting was all over the place and borderline unreadable, but she thought the experience was strange, so she saved it:
"I knew I couldn't send a letter like that, so I tore it up in little pieces and put them in my pocketbook, next to my all-purpose compact, in case the psychiatrist asked to see them.
But of course Doctor Gordon didn't ask to see them, as I hadn't mentioned them, and I began to feel pleased at my cleverness. I thought I only need tell him what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture he had of me by hiding this and revealing that, all the while he thought he was so smart." A good psychiatrist knows how to get at things like this so you don't feel like you have to work so hard to share your deepest thoughts, but Esther quickly sees the sneaky side of the mental health partnership dilemma.
- Wherever you go, there it is.
The other thing that makes depression such a dastardly demon is that it can follow you anywhere.
"Wherever I sat - the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air."
- Shock treatments
Esther receives shock treatments (some more "pleasant" (aka less horrifying) than others) and at the asylum, she goes through a routine each day of wondering if she'll be targeted:
"Each morning, when I heard the nurse knock with my tray, an immense relief flooded through me, because I knew I was out of danger for that day. I didn't see how Doctor Nolan could tell you went to sleep during a shock treatment if she'd never had a shock treatment herself. How did she know the person didn't just look as if he was asleep, while all the time, inside, he was feeling the blue volts and the noise?" Shock treatments seem absolutely barbaric to me, although I know that in limited cases they are used today. They used to be used without consent (well into the later part of the 20th century) and I researched them a bit when I was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. At any rate, I found this morning ritual of fear to be so tangible, and so painful.
- Uncertainty of security
"How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"
Okay, I know this has been a fairly morbid post, but here's my last depressing thought on depression. Mental health is a constant fight. It doesn't go away and leave you safe and sound in the way that a bad cold might, or even a broken leg. It stays with you, and part of healing and dealing is learning to be comfortable with the idea that it ebbs and flows, and what's most important is knowing your network of support, both professional and personal, and having a plan of action for the ebb tides. "
- "By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat."
- "I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
- "I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life."
- "I picked up my pocketbook and started back over the cold stones to where my shoes kept their vigil in the violet light."
- "I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people's eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth."
Listen to the brag of your hearts, readers, and remember that you are, you are, you are.
Expect a post on Fight Club in the next few days, and if you're in the Northeast, enjoy the snow!