One hundred and eighty-nine pages and more than a dozen chapters later and this book, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, is going nothing like I thought it’d be. Ester Greenwood, our main character, is in Manhattan on a paid experience at a magazine, during her summer off from college (think Sex in the City). She’s an interesting character. She’s smart yet she doesn’t exactly fit in with the other girls who are in the program with her.
Throughout the book so far, I’ve gotten an overwhelming sense that Ester is trying to escape from herself. She needs to be away from her mother and her old self even, at one time remarking, “I made a point of never living in the same house with my mother for more than a week” (140). She doesn’t want to be reminded of her past and is always looking forward, planning her next move.
Ester often throws herself into situations without as much as a thought. While sitting in traffic on her way to a group magazine event with Doreen, one of two girls she likes in the group, she takes up an offer by a random man to go to a bar. She gives a fake name to the men there, Elly Higgenbottom, and later she quips that if all else fails she’ll move to Chicago and turn into Elly. She’s willing to do anything, from an exceeding long bath that she refers to as ‘baptismal’ to drinking her life away, just to lose herself even if only for a little while.
New York circa 1950
The crazy actions of Ester don’t end there. Ester is obsessed with losing her virginity. From desirability, to status, or something more personal, the source of her obsession is indeterminable to me. She believes that having sex will bestow upon her some “spectacular” change. Her sexual encounters are few (mostly because she hates her hypocrite of a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend–we’ll get there just you wait). However, during her last weeks in New York she meets a handsome simultaneous interpreter for the UN. She manages to get all the way to this man’s apartment, in his bedroom and yet she chickens out. The societal expectations of a woman in the 1950s are too much for her. She wants to be able to do whatever she wants, but there’s something intrinsic to her that prevents her from doing so.
At times Ester is entirely insensitive and generally a horrible person. In one instance she leaves early to head back home and later she finds Doreen drunk outside her door. Being the kind young woman she is, Ester (or Elly, who really knows?) leaves her drunk friend to sleep the night in the hallway in a pool of her own vomit. Ester continuously reaffirms throughout The Bell Jar that she hates her boyfriend, yet she continues stringing him along. At first she makes it seem like its for his sake because he’s sick and is in the hospital, but over Christmas she goes and sees him and immediately rejects his proposal. To be fair, it was pretty weak as proposals go.
One thing that really boggles me about the relationship between Buddy and Esther is the whole concept of him being a hypocrite. In many ways, Ester envies the freedom men have in the 1950s comparatively to women, especial in terms of sex. Ester sees Buddy as naive throughout their relationship, until a situation occurs in which Buddy divulges to Ester that he’s more experienced than she thought. To Ester, this is a huge shock. I think that this revelation made her spite Buddy, leaving him forever labelled as a hypocrite in her mind. This could be where her obsession with losing her virginity comes from.
Esther isn’t a textbook character. She’s what I’d call spunky. It’s easy to see how she changes through the book. She confronts reality through going semi-insane. Ester seems to find herself when she feels finally liberated; the source of her liberation being birth control. While I don’t know what she’s looking for, and I’m certain of her uncertainty when it comes to what she’s looking for, the birth control gives her some solace, some control in her life that seems to be totally out of her hands.
Okay. I have a small confession to make. Between starting this blog post and ending it, I’ve finished the book. What can I say? My fingers are physically unable to type as fast as I read. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bell Jar, in spite of the times that Esther’s whining seemed endless. I think that any young woman should delve into the depths of Ester’s mind because despite some of its dark corners, she’s relatable. In the words of Plath herself, “I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant (source)”. If there’s one thing that this book is, it’s personal. Not just to the writer, but the reader. It’s a book that makes you think about more than just a girl frolicking through New York, it’s transcendent.