Out of the Bell Jar and into the Mason Jar: Considering a Literary Classic and my Teenage Years

“That’s the most depressing book.”

A tall, swim-suit sporting man shouted at me as he sauntered over to the pool’s towel stand. He clearly cross-fitted. #ThoseAbs. I paused and looked up from the book in question which was Syliva Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”

“It is. I clearly have terrible taste in pool-side reads.”

This is one thing I love about California: you don’t need to have a “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit model body to get attention at the pool (that’s because, thanks to cross-fit, botox, and boob jobs, everyone has a SI swimsuit model body). No, to stand out at the pool, you just need some socially progressive modernist literature.

He winked. Suggested I switch to something like Cosmo, and was off before I had a chance to exchange room numbers (it’s entirely possible that the toddler toddling behind him was, in fact his, but then again, at hotel pools it’s so hard to tell which parent belongs to which child… oh, well.)

My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn't make light reading
My pool-side view in Silicon Valley. A little 20th century feminist lit didn’t make light reading

I had committed to reading such heavy literature at the pool side for two simple reasons: 1. I don’t do fluffy chick-lit, and 2. It was research for the gender-identity/femininity exhibition I’m in the process of curating.

For those that haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s one canonical novel, it was to the 1960s what Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was to the 1890s. If you’ve never read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and have no idea what I’m talking about, “The Bell Jar” reads a lot like “Catcher in the Rye.” If you’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye,” well, shame on you and your grade school English teacher.

Here’s the mega abbreviated cliff’s notes run down: Esther Greenwood is a successful and attractive 19 year old college girl who lands a great summer internship at a mega lady’s magazine in New York City. But just when the future looks bright and full of possibilities, Esther hits a wall. She breaks down, crashes, and bottoms out.

The story is dark. The writing, superb.

But as much as I was engrossed in and enjoying such wonderfully, honestly crafted prose, I’m glad I didn’t read it was I was 19. I think it would have felt too familiar… even more familiar than it already does…

Digging around my bedroom this weekend, I found a notebook with the jottings of a frustrated young story writer. Most of the scribbling came from ages 16-20, and they all raged with a kind of loneliness and angst. I think I felt that stories about breakdowns and being misunderstood where what you were supposed to be writing about if you wanted to be considered a good writer. Melodrama seemed to be a prerequisite for the Pulitzer or for making the American English classroom curricula. I don’t think any of what I was writing was reflective of what I felt or of my mental state because I never got very far with them (try like, 3 pages, max.) But then again, I don’t really remember how I felt about life or school at 16. I was just kind of doing rather than feeling. Feeling came in college.

But I did find one piece of writing that was troubling to me, because it was the one piece that wasn’t an attempt at fiction. It was an attempted personal essay and the only thing in the book that was typed, with blue-ink edits.

In it, I rattled off my string of accomplishments, concluding with “I was considered mature and well-round, well cultured and intellectual. Yet something was missing.”

The punchline, of course, because I was 18, was that I needed a boyfriend. Reading it, while I admired her self-awareness and vulnerability, I hated that teenage version of myself for defining happiness in terms of being attached to someone else. I couldn’t go to college without being someone’s girlfriend! I wrote. “The fact I had never been kissed seemed small in comparison.”

Flash to Esther:

“Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.

I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.” 

This was how I saw the world — a simple division between lovers and loners. Reading on, I saw that 18 year old me hated me for feeling that way too. What a relief. As I got older, while the idea of a companion was and is always intoxicatingly appealing, there was another feeling I had — a fear of being tied down.

Flash back to Esther:

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored around from a fourth of July rocket. “

There’s a lot of vignettes in the “Bell Jar” I could relate to at 19 and even now. Ones that are in many ways more meaningful to me than the ones about men, about the double standards for the sexes, about marriage. Esther has a moment when she compares her moment in life to standing under a fig tree. Each fig represents a possible path — marriage and a family, Olympics, famous writer, famous editor, and so on. But she can only pick one, and once she does, all the other will fall, spoiled. The tree of possibility can get you down — knowing you have so many options but can’t really have them all. I remember sitting alone on my university quad one cold late autumn night while I was grad student, feeling overwhelmed by possibilities and crying a bit at a fear of achieving non of them, of mucking it all up. But unlike Esther, I didn’t let the fear of failure or indecision win. I learned that with a little cunning, and fast feet, you can grab as many fruit as you can before they all go rotten. Maybe you won’t get them all, but you’ll get enough to make a decent pie… sharing optional.

In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.
In life, you can have your pies and eat them too.
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