Dear Sylvia Plath // My Response To *The Bell Jar* {Classic Analysis}

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BELL_JAR2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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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?

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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—

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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).

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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”).

BELL_JAR1

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. shar says:

    THIS WAS SO GREAT OMG.
    Firstly, I adored Catcher In The Rye and it was such a good book aosdfoaskj. Secondly, I read The Bell Jar last summer and quite frankly didn’t really like it. I mean I know it’s super famous and stuff but I totally didn’t connect to it and I didn’t really get what kind of point it made and just why??? I liked the idea of reading it, but not really the reality.
    Side note: I guess I consider myself a feminist in the sense that I believe in equality. But I think a lot of feminists end up marginalising a lot of women who don’t share their exact beliefs or want to respond to the problem of gender inequality differently. Great post ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Shar! YAY SOMEBODY ELSE likes Catcher in the Rye ❤ (we should start a fan club lol). And I agree, the feminist movement really needs to reevaluate itself.
      ~Hermione

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  2. I love everything about this post and I don’t know where to start.

    First of all: “I’m starting to get that what makes a book timeless is its ability to embody the spirit of a particular era.” That’s the best quote about timelessness that I have ever read. I’m not exaggerating. That’s it. You nailed it. Is it all right with you if I write that down and put it on my bulletin board? I mean honestly? Because it’s perfect.

    Second of all, I haven’t read The Bell Jar (not that interested in doing so, to be honest…) but I just want to say how brave you are to express a critical viewpoint about a classic. You approach it with respect but without assigning it automatic reverence, which I think should be more common.

    Thirdly, I absolutely agree with your thoughts regarding feminism, but, again, it took a lot of bravery to express them, especially in 2017’s internet! I don’t understand why women seem to have arrived at the decision that equality means putting men down? Or that men and women are exactly the same? Because that is not scientifically true?

    I only ever got into one physical fight at school. Disclaimer: I’m not saying what I did was right, it just illustrates a point. There was this girl in my second grade class who was ultra-feminist before the internet made that ubiquitous. She was being raised by a single mother who had a lot of radically feminist ideas that she would then repeat at school. She was really my first exposure to the men-and-women-are-the-same-in-every-way point of view, and what she said always confused and upset me because I knew it was untrue. One day at recess she asserted (for the millionth time) that she was as strong as any boy in our class. I had kind of had enough, and basically told her that if she meant physical strength, that just wasn’t true (I don’t remember how I phrased it as a second-grader, but that was the gist). She was a very small, skinny girl, and I knew just by looking at her that it wasn’t true. But she continued to insist.

    Having grown up the only girl with two brothers, I was pretty good at wrestling, so I very calmly took her down and pinned her to the ground. As I sat on top of her and she struggled to get up but couldn’t, I told her that most of the boys in our class were stronger than me, but I was stronger than her, and so she was wrong. Then I got up and walked away. I never got in trouble because of course she was too embarrassed to go and tell on me. Again, I’m not saying what I did was right, but I feel like if I, as a second grader, could reason it out that men and women are physically different, and that men are, on average, physically stronger than women, that shouldn’t be such a point of dispute today! And neither should the many other emotional and psychological differences between the statistically average woman and the statistically average man.

    I also really liked your point about why shouldn’t women invest more of their time in areas of life that will make them happier. The sad thing is that the feminist movement has pushed women in a direction where they often won’t find real fulfillment. The other day, my mom was saying how she finds she’s embarrassed to say she’s a stay at home mom now that her kids are grown and mostly grown because of the reactions she gets. I think that’s awful.

    Also, Holden Caulfield is the ultimate voice of young adulthood in my opinion! I absolutely adore The Catcher in the Rye.

    Anyhow, apologies because I usually write you an essay, but this time I think I wrote you a novel. Well done a thousand times over on this post! I thoroughly enjoyed it and applaud you for bravely expressing your viewpoint!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the essay, Chloe!!! SERIOUSLY. I enjoy all of your comments so much. (And sorry for the late reply–I don’t have easy access to wi-fi, and today is the first time in like a week or something that I’ve had a chance to get online).

      And, oh my goodness, did you make my day!!! You want to *quote me*? Aw, thank you so much. I reread that part of your comment over and over. You’re so sweet (and I don’t mean that in a patronizing way, I really mean it.) So, again, thank you!!

      Honestly, I want to meet second-grade-you. That was such a great story! I remember the first time the “men vs. women” thing really clicked for me; I was a first-grader (I think? maybe it was second grade, too?), and I informed my mom that “a woman can do anything a man can do.” (I had read this in a book and was testing out the ideology). My mom looked right at me and said, “No, they can’t. Woman aren’t as physically strong as men, and never will be.” That has really stuck with me. And then this past year, I did a speech on the history of feminism from a Christian perspective…and that really made me think about what our culture says about men vs. woman versus what science/the Bible/traditionalism says. Because, really, I WANT to get married, and have kids…as a career, and I am so sick of people asking me what “real job” I want to have.

      I read The Catcher in the Rye earlier this year, and I absolutely loved it. I also really liked the post you did “In Defense of Holden Caulfied” earlier this year–it was the first time I’d read something that approached the book from a positive standpoint, instead of just mindlessly trashing it.

      Thank you so much again!!! Have a lovely day!
      ~Hermione

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aww thank you! Glad you aren’t annoued by my extensive comments, haha. Your posts are just so thought provoking that it always gives me a lot to say!
        From a young age, I’ve been a careful student of Bible, and I am also very interested in psychology and neuroscience. Coming from these perspectives, my opinion is that the current cultural view in this country is far too extreme, and actually ignores and undermines that which brings true fulfillment for women, and family peace. It’s really sad, because the structure of the family outlined in the Bible is very orderly and ensures that everyone’s emotional, psychological, and physical needs are met. While I’m not really planning on starting a family at this point in my life, I think it’s really sad that the historical and natural career of being a wife and mother is treated with such disdain today. It’s not balanced, but then, human views usually aren’t. History is an ever swinging pendulum between one extreme and the other. (Which is the reason for Jeremiah 10:23.)
        I’m so glad you enjoyed my post on Holden. And thank you again for so bravely presenting your important but unpopular opinions!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks so much again, Chloe!!! I agree with you exactly. Society never can seem to find a balanced perspective, and someone (or some group) always suffers in the end. And I have to tell you–it’s so nice to find someone who shares my viewpoints on Christianity, feminism and gender roles. *aggressively wishes we could talk in real life* *realizes two introverts probably have better conversations via computer anyway…*
        Thanks so much for all your comments, again!
        ~Hermione

        Liked by 1 person

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