In a way, I’m almost glad that you’re dead, and that I’m writing this letter to a woman/author who will never ever read it. This way I can be brutally honest. I really wish I could do nothing but sing your praises for The Bell Jar, and blather on and on about how much I loved it, how much it touched me, and so forth. However, as you are undoubtedly gathering from the tone of this account, I simply can’t find it in myself to do that.
Withstanding all that, it was a very good book-extremely engaging. (Although writing this as a letter rather than a typical book review makes that claim seem almost ludicrous-who am I to say whether your book is good or not when I’m writing to you “personally” and not writing about you objectively?) Your ability to write, to write fantastically, makes me so unbelievably jealous. Your prose is so beautifully self-conscious. I suppose part of that is because Esther’s story is also your story (I read the brief auto-biography included in the back of my copy of the book). Really, I’m starting to get that what makes a book timeless is its ability to embody the spirit of a particular era; and often the author does that by fictionalizing their own life and recording this fictionalization with beautiful prose—and voilà! Society has a new “classic”, not praised for its originality, but for its inherent soul that doubles as a soul for “modern” society-whether that “modern” society be the 1830’s or the 1920’s or the 50’s etc. So you put down your own life, your own “crack-up” to paper, and The Bell Jar then created this sort of feminine version of the 1950’s. I say “feminine” because J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye undoubtedly falls into a similar category as your novel–1950’s setting, coming-of-age themes etc.–though both Catcher in the Rye’s author and protagonist were men (or boys? I’d hardly call Holden Caulfield a man) and you (as a woman) wrote this same era through the eyes of another woman (albeit a struggling one), your protagonist.
I’ll come back to the differences between these two novels later, because I think it’s worth pointing something else out. If I remember correctly, Salinger published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, thus embodying the 50’s during the 50’s. You wrote The Bell Jar during the early sixties, and so there’s an obvious bit of perspective put into your work. By this I am referring to your obvious critique of so-called gender roles. Honestly, at first I was surprised by all the feminist undertones the novel had, but really, it makes perfect sense. The 60’s were home to the 2nd wave of feminism, radical feminism-and so it’s quite logical that you’d embrace this viewpoint. And obviously, someone intent on writing social criticism from a 1960’s feminist viewpoint is not going to treat the iconic archetype of the fifty’s housewife very kindly.
A brief word on feminism here: I am not from the 1950’s, or the 1960’s, and so I have no way of really knowing what it was like to be a woman in that day and age. Every literary work from that period will present a bias viewpoint–which is only natural, considering that they will have been written by a biased, opinionated person-so there’s no clear verbatim available to me through the literary cannon by which I could “live” in the fifties. (To be idly philosophical for a moment-does verbatim even exist in Literature? Unbiased art is impossible; can truth be found in art-or only someone’s perception of the truth?)
All I know is that the chances of my being some sort of radical feminist burning her bras in the sink would have been very, very slim. I am not a feminist today–nor am I an anti-feminist. Anti-feminists take the approach that we (as woman) don’t have any problems at all, and so why would we need them fixed? Feminists recognize that women do face problems, but then they approach the problems the wrong way, because how is putting a woman above a man any better than putting a man above a woman?
To be concise: I believe that a woman can be married and have a career. If God has given her talents, why wouldn’t she use them? No, all it boils down to is a matter of perspective: a lady (who perhaps loves anatomy and medicine) goes and gets her Doctorate, starts her own business, but as she is also a wife and mother, she should put those relationships first. (Does that bother you? Because it is scientifically proven that men and woman are different, and that women tend to get their self-worth more from their relationships than their achievements, and so why wouldn’t you as a woman invest more in the area of your life that will make you happier?)
See, we probably could argue about this for ages (because I don’t believe in “free” sex, either, or birth control). But, moving on—
I’m not sure if I’ve made my central point very clearly, if I’ve even bothered to make it at all. Here it is then: The Bell Jar was engaging, thought-provoking, well-written. It simply did not resonate with me personally the way I expected it to–the way Catcher in the Rye did. It seems that to identify with The Bell Jar is much more socially-acceptable and sophisticated than to identify with Catcher in the Rye. After all, The Bell Jar “empowers woman”, I suppose, and woman usually find it empowering to read a book by a woman that advocates feminism. But even moving beyond the feminist aspect–I have read reviews of people who just saw themselves in your novel like nothing else, and somehow I expected that to happen for me too. It really didn’t. I found the book more interesting on a literary criticism level (and I read this really fascinating paper online which looked at the book using psychological criticism) but it didn’t, I don’t know, touch my soul like Holden Caulfield did (and yes, today’s internet writes him off as a self-centered brat leeching off daddy’s trust fund–I don’t care).
I think I’ve said everything I meant to now. I know that I’m not really writing this letter to you, and so there’s no possible chance of offending you-but I guess I’ll apologize in case I did anyway? But after all, I am entitled to my own opinions.
And I love your poetry! (Especially “Mad Girl’s Love Song”).