It is ten minutes from four o’clock in the morning on January 1, 2021. I planned on going to bed at two-thirty as usual, I planned on sleeping tonight. However, I have just finished “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, and sleep now seems like an impossible reality.
I want to start off by saying that never have I read a book that has so greatly affected me emotionally. I started off reading at around two a.m., and when I looked up it was two-thirty. I couldn’t stop reading. Then it was two-fifty. Then, I finally looked up for the last time and the clock read three-forty-five. I couldn’t stop reading: I was witnessing a mental collapse that was so vivid and raw I felt it was my own. It felt familiar. Once I had finished the novel and read all there was to read at the back of the book, I set it down on my table and just sat there, staring. I realized that I had to write about all that I was processing, not tomorrow morning, not tomorrow at all- tomorrow this incredible reaction I’ve just had would be watered down and completely useless. I want to capture everything and preserve it. So, with this realization, I picked up my water bottle from my bedside table, quietly and carefully opened my door, and slipped into my bathroom to refill the bottle and go to the bathroom. Once I reached the bathroom, I didn’t need to pee anymore. I didn’t feel thirsty. I just stared into the mirror, thinking. That made up my mind- I needed to record my thought process, because there was too much to handle alone. I padded down the hall in the dark as to not alert my parents, leaving my water bottle on the sink, empty. I retrieved my computer, groped and felt for the walls to guide myself on the way back, and swiftly walked through and closed my door. The tapping of my keyboard is so comforting, and yet it worries me that somehow my parents will hear it, through two doors and the length of a hall and the distance of being one floor up. It’s the paranoia of relatively strict parents and being up too late. I’ve outlined getting here, and now I have to truly begin.
The first half of this book was eerily calm and instilled anxiety in me. In retrospect, I believe this is because the main character, the portrayal of Sylvia herself, was doing all the things that make people perceive you as healthy and normal and happy: she had finished a year of college as an exemplary student; she was in New York with a ladies’ magazine, jaunting about to lunches and sightseeing and classes and bars; she was laughing and adventuring with her kooky roommate and relative friend, Doreen. She was, by most definitions, fully alive- however, throughout all this banter and livelihood, there is this veil of…staleness. It’s as if she’s just led by the elbow in her life, steered by an unseen hand to this and that, and is numb to it all. The numbness is within her, pressing gently, and hasn’t begun to thump and pound and bruise her as it did later. It’s malicious that way. Because of this fake joyfulness lasting half of the book, I thought that the rest of her decline would be as slight and unnoticeable as it had been to that point, and so I was unready and vulnerable to the steep drop that came next. I reached this drop only tonight, and from there I was unable to put the book down.
Sylvia’s writing is personal and honest in a way that I’ve never read before: she is conversational, she is witty, she is literary without being stuffy and distant, and she is not morose in this book that is filled with such dispiriting events. I was sucked into her world; I was caught off-guard because instead of large, artful words and poetic lines one after another that bordered on romantic and superfluous, I was hit in the face by a voice that sounded like it could come from me. This novel is entirely poetic, it is beautifully so. It however it not poetry that you recognize as poetry: she would use complex, abstract or poetic language but so perfectly that I read on as if it was simple narrative. Her poetry seems so exquisite that instead of brutally noticeable wordplay, her words are blended with such literary excellence that her descriptions of scenarios or feelings are inwardly recognizable. Her words do not stand out harshly, rather they articulate feelings so wonderfully that I could understand these precise feelings instantly and feel them as if I were the main character in the book. My favorite example is, “I squinted at the page. The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.” This blank, unconcentrated, unfocused feeling while reading, where words are no longer words, and nothing can be retained, not even the first half of a sentence, is so familiar. It is such a specific feeling, and I have never seen it in print, but I knew what Sylvia’s main character felt like in that moment with such clarity. I found this to be true throughout the book: to me she reaches past the ordinary way of explaining things and writes something extraordinarily out there, and nails these feelings. Writing such ordinary, unnoticed concepts in anything but extraordinary ways seems like it would never be anything but wrong after reading this book. I suppose now that I have the premise of my awe written, I can dive into what was the actual purpose of writing this: how I felt.
I felt an incredible number of emotions while reading this book- that has been well-established. I realize now that nearly all of the emotions I felt were the perceived emotions of the main character. After finishing the book, I felt shocked at how acquainted I had been with the feelings described in “The Bell Jar”. I felt devastated after reading that Sylvia Plath’s apparent recovery from her spiral and her productivity and accomplishments in the coming years after the events written about in this book were abruptly halted by her suicide. I felt devastated that such a stupendous writer whose novel I was bewitched by died so young, and I felt loss for all of the beautiful work that was never written and for the brilliant mind that would have written it. Those were the only emotions I felt that were separate from the book.
This book quite something to read- I can’t sleep but I feel mentally exhausted after reading it. I felt the main character’s (Sylvia’s) numbness and how a life that seemed so colorful was “really” so grey and dull to look at during the entirety of the book. I felt like I was window shopping but the building whose window I looked into had nothing inside and was filled with brown cardboard boxes and sheets rather than interesting jewelry or clothes or cards or knickknacks or anything of interest. It was as if life was so one-note and dry and mind-numbing that all talking was insignificant chatter and doing anything was a headache and a chore. I’ve had those days or those weeks or those months and they are so hard to get through because it’s like being stuck in a limbo or like being stuck in the movie “Groundhog Day”: every day is the same even if it isn’t. All conversations are the same mindless garbage, everything fun to do is boring and requires too much effort for it to possibly be fun. I felt in limbo reading this book, I felt like life was closing in on me and I was screaming for someone to pull me out before I was squeezed to death but nobody could hear me and I eventually fell silent from giving up on ever being heard. I felt so angry, too. I felt angry at the main characters soul-sucking boyfriend who seemed to have substantial character from the outside but really was tedious and loathsome. I felt angry because he seemed substantial enough for the main character to continue a relationship, but every interaction made me want to hit my head against the wall. Reading the things he said and what he did was the same feeling as shaking a warm, clammy hand for several seconds too long because the hand’s owner won’t pull away. I felt angry because the main character’s first psychiatrist did nothing to really help her as she spiraled and never said anything of value. I was angry at how everyone treated her as her mental health declined- it was like she was a child shuttled from place to place and nurse to nurse- they acted like she wasn’t a human with thoughts and was instead just a wadded up ball of neurotic. I was upset at how sane she was in her head and how everyone acted like any minute she might burn down the building. I was upset at how they didn’t see how sane she was. I was upset that they treated her like someone who grabbed the wheel of a city bus, crashing it and killing thirty people instead of someone who was depressed and needed help.
That was some of what I felt- I don’t know if I can properly separate and distinguish every detail. I’m looking forward to going back into the book and annotating and highlighting- this book is filled with so many wonderful descriptions and phrases and I’m definitely going to take that opportunity to learn. This was a disturbing and beautiful book to read and I enthusiastically recommend it.
Author Notes: I truly just felt the need to write after this incredible book, and decided to publish it here in case anyone finds it interesting :)