The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Christina Moore, Reader

(Recorded Books)
Plath got everyone's attention the hard way. In 1956 she married the poet Ted Hughes. In 1963 she published The Bell Jar, her first and only novel. The same year she stuck her head in the oven and killed herself.

If that surprised us, it was because we hadn't read The Bell Jar which is a chronicle in words of how words mean nothing to those in the bog of despond. And the ultimate message is clear: living in a world where no one understands despair can drive one to self-murder.

The book also may serve as a manual on suicide. We learn the many different ways that Esther Greenwood --- presumably a stand-in for Plath --- toys with so many different ways to do it. Hanging herself. Disembowelling herself. Shooting herself. Cutting her wrists. Taking poison. Jumping off a building. Jumping off a bridge.

When she goes swimming in the ocean, she tries to drown herself, but she keeps popping back up "like a cork." A gun? She always had trouble with mechanical things, thought she might blow it:

    I'd already read in the papers about people who'd tried to shoot themselves, only they ended up shooting an important nerve and getting paralyzed, or blasting their face off, but being saved, by surgeons and a sort of miracle, from dying outright.

She buys a package of Gillette razor blades and fills the bathtub with warm water. "I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists," she writes. She starts to cut her wrists but stops because "the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn't do it."

    It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.

The funniest entry in this bleak résumé of self-murder has Esther trying in vain to hang herself. "The trouble was, our house had the wrong kind of ceilings. The ceilings were low, white and smoothly plastered, without a light fixture or a wood beam in sight. I thought with longing of the house my grandmother had before she sold it ... After a discouraging time of walking about with the silk cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat's tail and finding no place to fasten it, I sat on the edge of my mother's bed and tried pulling the cord tight."

    But each time I would get the cord so tight I could feel a rushing in my ears and a flush of blood in my face, my hands would weaken and let go, and I would be all right again.

"I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again."

Finally, there is the one that almost works for Esther. Pills. And then there's the one that worked for Plath herself ... in a small kitchen in a rented apartment on Fitzroy Road in London, her husband gone away, her children off in the other room: she seals the doors and the windows, opens the door of the oven, and turns on the gas.

§     §     §

Half-way through the first disc of this excellent reading by Christina Moore, we found ourselves hooked on Plath's story: now we know why so many friends read and reread (and re-reread) The Bell Jar. It speaks directly to what we were back in the 50s: bored, angry, lonely, tired of cant. We were irked by the world, uninspired by our professors, irritated with parents (forever asking us "What's wrong?" Not knowing that we just didn't know.)

Those were tough times back then, in the 1950s, for despair ... and even tougher when you learned the impossibility of conveying it to others. In college I had several friends who bravely (I think) bore the marks of their despair. It was as if they had to cut savagely into their bodies so that others could see ... as plain as the nose on your face ... how much it hurt. Plath's art was born of a this despair; and it was a despair she could not shake.

There is a page on the internet that lists all the poems from the last three years of her life, and they are bleak ... bleak as any of the dirges from Lowell and Eliot and Celan and Larkin. They show us a singularly disturbed women who forced great art from the boiling pot of misery, a misery that produced her last and possibly greatest poems. For instance, "Daddy,"

    You do not do, you do not do
    Any more, black shoe
    In which I have lived like a foot
    For thirty years, poor and white,
    Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Or "Death & Co,"

    His hair long and plausive,
    Masturbating a glitter
    He wants to be loved.
    I do not stir.
    The frost makes a flower,
    The dew makes a star,
    The dead bell,
    The dead bell.

Or "Totem,"

    I am mad, calls the spider,
    Waving its many arms.
    And in truth it is terrible,
    Multiplied in the eyes of the flies.
    They buzz like blue children
    In nets of the infinite,
    Roped in at the end by the one
    Death with its many sticks.

Or her very last poem "Edge,"

    The woman is perfected.
    Her dead
    Body wears the smile of accomplishment.

Many of us have, in our lives, felt the woe that Esther feels... that Plath felt as she neared the end. Her woe was an old friend ... one that came, and stayed on, and on, and on.

Many of us have felt the grief in despair that Plath knew all too well; but few know when the jar is full; few of us reach that loss-of-patience that must end a melancholy-infected life.

The message in The Bell Jar is one that has to be a prelude to the rest.

--- Mary Beth McDonald
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