August was an exciting month for me with the Unputdownable Book Club as it marked my one-year anniversary reading and discussing books with this wonderful group of ladies. You can read my very first blog post about why I joined the UBC here. It just so happens August was also my month to pick my first book for us to read.
Nobody really knows the magic behind Julia’s Excel spreadsheets that keep us all in line and on schedule for hosting meetings, choosing book picks and writing blog posts (maybe not even Julia herself!), but the stars aligned and on my UBC anniversary I got to host our meeting and pick our latest book, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
I stumbled upon a copy of this semi-autobiographical novel in a pile of books my grandmother said I could take if I wanted them. My grandmother is 82, an avid reader and one of my greatest influences in life.
My grandmother, Marilyn Berger, was the head librarian of the art and architecture library at McGill University for almost 35 years. She raised three children in the 1950s and 60s before earning a B.A. and Masters in Library Science from McGill in the early 1980s. She took care of my grandpa for many years when he was ill with diabetes until he passed away. She had a Macbook, an iPhone and an iPad and knew how to use them before I did. She wears Lululemon pants and she is the much respected matriarch of my family.
It’s actually quite fitting that she would have this book on her shelf, as it was written by a woman who was also very much ahead of her time: intelligent, progressive and non-conformist—just like my grams.
The Bell Jar is a beautifully written early feminist tale of a young women bursting with potential but struggling with depression and against what is expected of her in late-1950s America.
When she can’t quite seem to fit herself neatly into the American Dream that’s been laid out for her, Esther Greenwood quickly finds herself falling into a downward spiral, refusing to marry Buddy Willard—the studly, soon-to-be-doctor with Tuberculosis—and failing to get into the writing program she planned on taking upon her return from a magazine internship in New York City.
Esther finds herself facing institutionalization for her depression, revealing to us modern-day readers the unpleasant reality of the way mental health was treated 50 years ago.
Many know the unfortunate way in which Plath eventually took her own life in 1963, at the age of 31, less than a year after The Bell Jar—her first and only novel—was published.
Although a difficult book for some of our members to get through in terms of the subject matter, The Bell Jar received extraordinarily high praise overall from the group, with most people giving the book higher than a 4 out of 5 rating.
Our discussions centered mostly around the feminist themes of the book. We talked about the strong female characters in the novel and the many ways Esther strove to carve her own path as a writer at a time when young women were expected to get married and become homemakers.
We discussed the metaphor of the bell jar, a stifling glass structure used for observation; a place to put pretty things so one can look at them; a test-tube like instrument for experimentation; a prison.
Many of us were able to recall memorable passages from the book, including one in which a fig tree stands in for a metaphor about the paralyzing effects of indecision. My personal favourite is Plath’s description of taking a hot bath and feeling the dirt and weight of the day wash away:
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say : “I’ll go take a hot bath.”
I meditate in the bath. The water needs to be very hot, so hot you can barely stand putting your foot in it. Then you lower yourself, inch by inch, till the water’s up to your neck.
I remember the ceiling over every bathtub I’ve stretched out in. I remember the texture of the ceilings and the cracks and the colors and the damp spots and the light fixtures. I remember the tubs, too: the antique griffin-legged tubs, and the modern coffin-shaped tubs, and the fancy pink marble tubs overlooking indoor lily ponds, and I remember the shape and sizes of the water taps and the different sort of soap holders.
I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath.
I give this book a 5 out of 5. I absolutely loved the authenticity of Plath’s main character; the beautiful metaphors she uses to talk about her feelings of womanhood and indecision; the surprising moments of humour and wit; but most of all, for the absolute relevancy this novel still holds nearly 50 years after its publication.
Other books you might find complimentary include:
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood (1969)
The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
A Separate Peace, John Knowles (1959)
Have you read The Bell Jar? Tell us what you thought!