The Bell Jar
“How was the fur show?”
Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts is not interested in the fur show. But that doesn’t stop her from going though the routine of asking an acquaintance about the event. The story of this young woman’s descent into mental bipolar disorder and eventual breakdown is really all about interest, or the vacuum that atrophies life itself when it is absent.
There is very little we know about her reasons for getting clinically depressed and what caused her to feel like she was in a bell jar, running out of breath, except maybe that she observed the world in its raw form without shielding its effect on her system with beliefs or opinions of some kind –She took everything in, from the fetus in the jar to the story about the Rosenberg’s death by eclectic shock — like it was the ultimate truth to be meditated on.
It is seemingly frivolous for a protagonist to have such a strong death wish when there is nothing that can traumatize her to an extent that she becomes a perpetual victim. The women in the book are scattered. We get glimpses into her mother’s life and that she had a drastic change of heart after her marriage. There is also the character of the Catholic woman back home that had too many children and found herself happy in that state, and the hoards of young beautiful women who were part of her click and amused themselves with fashion and rich men who largely objectified them. We also know that she herself is seeking an intellectual man to break out of her small town morality complex.
Esther floats though the book like a connect-the-dots puzzle that never comes a full circle because there is no interest in making out the shape of the world, nor an interest in controlling whatever is made out of it.
An aspiring scholarship student, gifted in her ability to grasp theoretical anomalies in Physics and Chemistry as well as Arts, her intelligence is never in question here. The story starts like any Margret Atwood or Meriylin French book: with a woman who is on a path of self-discovery against a terrain of a harsh landscape that is pitted against the very women in her.
Conversely, it takes a turn into a deeply personal dimension, where you keep flipping the pages and hoping that she’ll get back to her shallow material world and fight the good fight with the competition from all the pretty ladies who are not waiting on her to figure out the rules of life. They after all were doing just alright without any, and had instead had a list of interests, in men, clothes, makeup, shoes and in partying.
As Esther charged up her reserves to find her passion and be unlike these women, she was attacked at a party by a patronizing and aggressive man. This event got her spiraling her into a whirlpool of emotional apathy for herself and her daily activities.
As she struggles to find her center there is a daemon inside her keeping her from sleeping and eating, from appreciating the beauty of nature or from her previously thrilling activities like skating:
And most importantly from reading and writing.
Her identity is stripped from her hands. An anchor to the sane world is lifted when her connection to literature is lost.
Since this was a feminist novel I looked for a man to blame.
“Is it me?” Buddy, her fiancée asks her when he visits her at the facility where she was getting electroconvulsive therapy. She says no, because she was taught that going down the path of suicide is not anyone’s fault, except the person who has given up. She didn’t say no because she thought he was blameless.
If there is a take away from this very autobiographical novel, it is that people around us have an innate ability to snatch away our interest in life and in living by their hypocrisy, their violence and by simply their own lack of ambition. Although there is not much detail about Esther’s father, his absence throughout her novel and the fact that she recalls being truly happy as a kid when he was around points to a void that ebbs at the lack of security a girl child carries with her thought her life.