This blog post may be a little bit dark. You may feel a little uncomfortable at the end of it, too.
Sylvia Plath lived from 1932 to 1963, writing poetry, fiction, and short stories. Plath was part of the confessional poetry movement, and received prestigious study opportunities aimed at advancing her career, her movement, and, ultimately, her art. Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and succeeded in ending her life at the age of 30.
Plath was born to a German immigrant father to the United States; Otto Plath taught at a small Georgia women’s college; he wrote a book about bumblebees. Otto died when Sylvia was eight years old; Sylvia’s mother raised two kids as the widow to a man 21 years her elder.
While a sophomore in college back in 1995, I first read Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical book The Ball Jar. The imagery of the title is telling of the journey to be taken, as it gives us a view into The Ball Jar’s protagonist as a sensitive soul that requires delicate treatment. Like the author, the protagonist is descending into the depths of mental illness.
Somewhat naive in my first reading back then, I was not particularly compassionate to the story that was being illuminated. I saw that the story humanized mental illness from a first hand perspective. I was not feeling the feelings that the author was showing; for those that do not know, depression isn’t only sadness. Depression is feeling nothing; and sad; self-loathing and anxiety; hopelessness; guilt; isolation.
I call what I felt in response to this biography, The Bell Jar naivete. I rated the book of neutral effectiveness, which is to say a 3-star rating on a 5-star scale. “The book didn’t offer any solutions,” I said. “The book illuminated an important subject, yet failed to evoke the desire to take corrective action.”
The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman that gains a summer internship at a prominent New York City magazine. The 20-something feels nothing of the stimulation or excitement she thinks that girls her age should feel at experiencing the big city or glamorous culture and lifestyle culture has helped her to expect.
I was a 20-year-old male at the time I read this book myself. I wasn’t all that sensitive to the book that I read then as not really targeted for me. I wasn’t looking to leave the Midwest for the prominent New York City magazine. I wasn’t feeling self-loathing, anxiety, guilt, sadness, or the rest of the depression feelings. I had no firsthand experience with the subject matter the characters in The Ball Jar book felt; that the book was semi-autobiographical failed to move me as well.
I gave you some biography of Sylvia Plath. Sylvia died too young, and she wrote a book that makes me not like the person I was when I was 20-years old. I’ve outlived Sylvia Plath by more than one-third of her life, and it was not until recently that I learned that I could be, and can be, a jerk. Why? If nothing else, it is that I asked a writer to give me a solution to a problem that she clearly did not have on her own.
Perhaps it is harsh to give myself too much grief over this book report that doubles as a speech; perhaps I should not feel a little bit dark or awkward at the end of this speech for not liking the characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This book does get into clinical depression, and largely does try to bring out subject matter that seems like it could be good subject matter for high school kids going through high school angst.
I also think about how seeing the movie The Breakfast Club might not be a bad thing for those same high school students. Today, I still am not really moved passed that neutral, 3-stars out of 5-stars rating. Maybe I still am a jerk. The good news is that I am not a high school teacher confronting this idea for your teenagers today.
One last thing, Sylvia Plath died a month after The Bell Jar was first published. Please do not let this final outcome hurt you.
Matt – Sunday, December 18, 2016