The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only published novel. It was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963 and only under the author's real name in BrThe Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only published novel. It was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963 and only under the author's real name in Britain in 1967. She committed suicide about a month after that. Publication in the United States was delayed until 1971, at the request of her family.
Since that time, it has attained the status of a classic and is often cited as one of the most influential feminist works of that period. But I had never read it. Time to remedy that oversight.
As all the reading world is most likely aware, the book is written in the form of a memoir of a young woman's descent into madness and is apparently based on Plath's own experience. I was mesmerized by it almost from the first page. It is unlike any other book I have ever read.
The story is told in simple, declarative sentences. The prose is both precise, crisp, and seems utterly dispassionate in its descriptions of the most harrowing personal experiences, including her traumatic loss of virginity and her experiences with electroshock therapy.
Although the language sometimes seems dated and even borderline racist by today's standards, such as when the character Esther Greenwood describes herself as "yellow as a Chinaman" or "looking like a sick Indian," still it is always direct and to the point. There can be no ambiguity in its meaning.
We get to know the characters in the novel mostly through their interactions with Esther. Those interactions tell us much about the attitudes toward women and sex during the period in which Plath wrote and, unfortunately, some of those paternalistic and misogynistic attitudes are still ascendant today.
Plath writes of Esther's confusion about sex as she enters young adulthood. Why, she wonders, should men to able to fully engage in sex for its own pleasure while only women must bear the burden of the consequences? It is surely a question that women have asked themselves since time immemorial. Of course, in the '60s that was beginning to change, but even that created some confusion and uncertainty.
Esther found very little sympathy or understanding for her feelings of confusion. Her mother's generation and society at the time had very firm ideas about a woman's place. They should get married and become wives and mothers. Or if they wanted a career, they should take shorthand and learn to transcribe their male boss's exciting correspondence. Esther's mother continually urges her to study shorthand so that she will have something to fall back on when it comes time to find a job.
Esther, on the other hand, chooses to study English literature and wants to be a writer.
Her narration of her story is poetic in many ways, but it is utterly devoid of histrionics and is a straightforward and sincere exposition of her psychological wounds and her struggle against the demons that threatened to overwhelm her. Her words make her despair palpable. They make the reader wish to be able to reach back through the years and offer her sympathy and somehow reassure her that she isn't alone and that there is hope.
Instead, we can only watch as Plath struggles to breathe "under the bell jar," as she describes her existence. She is sad. She is depressed. She feels empty. Perhaps it would be better to simply end it all rather than to continue the exhausting struggle.
It's fair to say that everyone has gone through dark periods in their life, but, fortunately, for most of us that darkness does not reach to the depths of clinical depression. At least our experience can give us some small inkling of the hopelessness and misery of those who do fall into those depths. And it should make all of us activists for improving our mental health system and making sure that those who need help are able to get it. ...more
Earlier this year, I read Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and enjoyed it tremendously. Reading that book about the protagonist's obsession with the gEarlier this year, I read Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and enjoyed it tremendously. Reading that book about the protagonist's obsession with the great 19th century French writer made me want to re-read his masterpiece, Madame Bovary.
I first read the book long ago in my youth, in what I now think of as my "romantic period." Quite honestly, although I remembered the broad outlines of the plot, I had long since forgotten many of the details. Thus, reading it this week has been much like reading it for the first time.
The book was published in 1856 and was subjected to attacks for obscenity by the public prosecutors. The resulting trial, which cleared Flaubert of the charge, was held in early 1857 and had the predictable result of making the book a sensation and a best-seller. Reading the book today, one is amazed that it could ever have been thought to be obscene. It seems so mild by present-day standards. Thus has the world changed.
The plot is so well-known, even by those who have never read the book, that summarizing it seems almost unnecessary. The story takes place in provincial northern France near the town of Rouen. We first meet Charles Bovary and follow him as he grows up in the care of his doting parents. Their ambition is for him to become a doctor. He follows his parents' wishes in all things, including marrying a wealthy widow who will be able to help him carry the financial burden of middle-class provincial life.
In his position as doctor, Charles goes to set the leg of a farmer and there he meets the farmer's daughter, Emma. He is immediately attracted to her and returns often to the farm, ostensibly to check on his patient. He is still married, of course, and not free to pursue his interest in the daughter. Fate soon takes care of that, though, when his wife dies unexpectedly.
His patient, the farmer, brings him a turkey and offers his condolences. He also invites him back to the farm. Charles starts visiting there once again, and asks for Emma's hand in marriage once his period of mourning is over.
Emma, for her part, is amenable and imagines a romantic life with this respected country doctor. But once the ceremony is over, she is soon disabused of her fanciful notions. Married life settles into a dull routine and all of Emma's efforts to bring a bit of spark into the relationship are ignored by her placid husband. He is perfectly happy and so he imagines that his wife is also.
The dissatisfied Madame Bovary becomes easy prey for local womanizers. The first to seduce her is the dashing officer Rodolphe and they carry on their affair until Rodolphe begins to tire of her and eventually leaves town in order to get away from her. Later, she succumbs once again - this time to the attractive young clerk Leon, whom she imagines that she truly loves.
Their affair runs its thoroughly predictable course, and, during all of this, her docile husband never suspects a thing. Neither does he suspect the financial shenanigans that she engages in in order to subsidize their life. He is so dull and so trusting that one has to pity him.
But one can pity Emma, too. Life just never turns out to be the romantic adventure that she wants. She is disappointed in all things. And, read in today's environment, one sees that she is a victim of a paternalistic society that does not value women except as sex objects and for producing children. She had wanted so much more for her life.
It's easy to blame Emma and to say that she frittered away her existence, always waiting for something exciting to happen. She never learned to appreciate what she had - a husband who adored her, a respected position in the community, a healthy child, plenty to eat, more and better clothes than any of her neighbors, a warm and comfortable house. But, no, it wasn't enough. She wanted a romantic love that would make her heart race and leave her breathless. Charles just wasn't up to that and the result was tragedy for them both.
So, what can we learn from Emma Bovary? Perhaps that we should accept our circumstances and as the old aphorism says, "Bloom where we are planted." Imagining that things would be so much better if only X would happen is a prescription for dissatisfaction and disappointment. Better to take what we've got and try to make the best of things.
If Emma could have done that, she might have enjoyed a long and honored life and been able to raise her daughter to womanhood and teach her to appreciate the simple life. But then we wouldn't have Madame Bovary as a cautionary tale to encourage us to keep our feet on the straight and narrow path.
It's interesting that Sophocles named his play Antigone. He might just as well have named it Creon, and, indeed, given the relative number of lines thIt's interesting that Sophocles named his play Antigone. He might just as well have named it Creon, and, indeed, given the relative number of lines that he gives each of those characters, that might have made more sense.
The conflict which Sophocles gives us is between the political and the religious interests of ancient Greek society. Antigone represents the ethos of the old ruling families and their loyalty to the gods and to ancient tradition. Creon represents the modern state and the rule of law. Choosing sides in the conflict, it seems evident that Sophocles is more sympathetic to the arguments for a government that represents rule of law.
The background of this story is what one may term a typical Greek tragedy. Antigone is the daughter of Jocasta and Oedipus, who was himself the son of Jocasta, and if you don't know how all that came about, then go read Oedipus Rex. Antigone had two brothers and a sister. Now, she has only a sister left because her two brothers killed each other in a fight over who would rule Thebes. One brother defended the city and the status quo; the other brother was a leader of the revolution.
After both brothers were killed, their uncle, Creon, who is now ruler of Thebes, decreed that the one who defended the city would be buried with full honors, but the one who rebelled against authority would be left on the battlefield for the birds to devour. This puts his niece, Antigone, in conflict with him, because in Greek society of that day, it was the religious and cultural duty of the women of the family to bury deceased family members.
Antigone decides to remain true to the gods and perform the duties that her heritage demands. She will bury her brother. Creon decrees that if she does so, he will have her executed.
True to the tradition she honors, Antigone attempts to bury her brother's body, and true to his word, Creon had her taken and walled up in a cave outside of town with just enough food and water for a few days.
As it happens, not everyone in the family is happy with Creon's action. His son argues for Antigone to be saved and when it seems that his father is not listening, he goes to the cave, finds that Antigone has already hanged herself and commits suicide himself.
Meanwhile, Creon had had a change of heart and was ready to release Antigone. Too late.
So, yes, your typical Greek tragedy, but why does it have such staying power? Why do we still read it and why does it still keep us awake at night wondering who had right on his/her side? Who was the hero here?
I said that I think Sophocles favored Creon, but, in fact, he did give both of the characters full reign to argue their points of view. Antigone was not wrong to want to uphold tradition by obeying the gods' laws as she had been taught to understand them, but she was wrong to completely ignore the state's laws as decreed by the king. Creon was not wrong to insist on the rule of law and that the rights of the state can supersede individual wishes, but he was wrong to completely disregard the gods' laws and the long tradition of the culture from which he came.
What we have here are two extremists who insist upon their own extreme positions without any consideration of compromise. And that is why this play is still so current and why we still read it. It might be ripped from the front page of today's Times. Human nature has not changed one whit in 2500 years. Sophocles saw it all clearly. That is the mark of great art.
I first read Antigone in high school at a time when the conflict between individual conscience and the state's interest in rule of law was in daily confrontation on the streets. I remember the play that I read as being very poetic and it made a huge impression on me. I don't know who the translator was. This particular edition was not at all poetic. The language was very workaday. Easy to understand, but without the rhythm and passion that I remembered. That's why it gets four stars instead of five. ...more
It was with a keen sense of anticipation that I turned to Trollope once again to read the second in his Barsetshire Chronicles series, Barchester ToweIt was with a keen sense of anticipation that I turned to Trollope once again to read the second in his Barsetshire Chronicles series, Barchester Towers. I had read the first, The Warden in 2013 and found it to be a wonderful reading experience; thus, the bar was set high. I was not disappointed.
In Barchester Towers, we again meet the humble clergyman and thoroughly good man, now ex-warden, Mr. Harding and his family. There is his most beloved daughter Eleanor Bold, now Widow Bold with a young son upon whom she shamelessly dotes. And there is the older daughter, Susan, and her husband, Archdeacon Grantly and their children. All of these characters are integral to the story told here.
But this book introduces new characters who will put their stamp upon Barsetshire and particularly Barchester.
There is a new bishop in town. His name is Dr. Proudie and he is certainly one of the most indecisive men ever to hold such an office. He is ruled in turn by his wife Mrs. Proudie, who gives new meaning to the adjectives stiff-necked and power-hungry. She determines to be the bishop in fact, if not in name.
However, Mrs. Proudie has some competition. It is the bishop's own chaplain, the oily Mr. Slope. He certainly matches Mrs. Proudie in ambition and in his desire to rule the bishop. He also has great plans for moving his own career along. One part of that plan is to find a suitable wife who will be an asset in his scramble to the top of ecclesiastical society, not just in Basetshire but in the country. Soon enough, his eye lights on the Widow Bold as a likely candidate to fill that office.
We also meet Mr. Quiverful, vicar of Puddingdale, a godly man, who along with his long-suffering wife, must try to make a way in the world for their fourteen living children, with another added just about every year.
Then there is Mr. Arabin, lately of Oxford, and a friend of Dr. Grantly. The archdeacon brings him to Barchester to fill a clerical post, hoping that he will be a counterweight to the odious Mr. Slope whom he hates.
And lastly, we have the Stanhope family, lately in residence in Carrara, Italy, but now called home by the bishop to take up the office which the head of the family, Dr. Stanhope had held titularly but in absentia. The bishop and Barchester get a bit more than bargained for in the Stanhopes. They prove to be a rather dissolute family - or at least two of their children, Bertie and Madeline, do. But their influence, in the end, is not all bad.
Trollope's writing was most certainly tailored to the tastes of his 19th century audience. He is extraordinary in the pacing of his story and with the great care that he gives to the development and exposition of his characters. We come to know these people very well indeed. In fact, some readers complain about the time that Trollope takes in this book in setting up his characters. Virtually half the book is spent on these introductions and reintroductions, but he does it all so deftly, so flawlessly, and with such beautiful use of language that I never felt the urge, as I sometimes do with writers, to say, "Oh, just get on with it!"
Trollope invests his readers in the lives of his characters and compels us to be interested in their actions or, in some cases, inaction. Most of all, he makes us understand what motivates them - usually something to do with church life since that is what dominates Barchester society. All of that takes time and he never rushes the process. I can see how that would make some twenty-first century readers twitchy. Not me. I revel in it.
When we get to the action of this book, it is all about the struggle for ecclesiastical power in Barchester. After five years, the office of warden is still not filled and that is the initial focus of the struggle as Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope push to influence the bishop in making a choice of the candidates. The sentimental choice is Mr. Harding, but the post would mean economic salvation to the Quiverful family if Mr. Quiverful should be chosen. Meanwhile, the main concern of the powers that be - or would be - is to choose a candidate who will enhance their own standing. And none is too concerned about the means that are used to achieve that end.
Now, with all of this clerical pushing and pulling, toing and froing, you might think you would find yourself sighing in frustration. Trust me. You won't. This is a very funny book! It is in its essence a satire and Trollope makes rich use of comedy and humor to expose the ridiculousness of human nature which hasn't improved at all in 158 years. He's still spot on.
2013 is the centennial anniversary of the publication of the first volume in Marcel Proust's epic, Remembrance of Things Past. In commemoration, many2013 is the centennial anniversary of the publication of the first volume in Marcel Proust's epic, Remembrance of Things Past. In commemoration, many book clubs, literary groups, and fans of the work have organized marathon readings of it. I decided it was time for me to do my own commemoration by reading it. After all, isn't it something that all literate people are supposed to have read?
I had actually attempted to read the book several years ago. I read perhaps thirty pages and was completely daunted. I just couldn't go on with it. But these days, I am made of sterner stuff, plus I have more time on my hands, so I persevered.
And, believe me, reading Proust does require perseverance. His convoluted, complex sentences go on for half a page or more with no relief. If the reader's attention wanders for even a few seconds, she can be irretrievably lost and has to go back to the beginning to pick up the thread of the narrative. I confess this happened to me more than once. The reading was a long, hard slog.
The narrative proceeds on two tracks. The first revolves around a younger version of the narrator who relates his experiences in and memories of the town of Combray. These experiences are triggered by the dipping of a Madeleine into hot tea. In fact, Madeleines play a central role in his memories of times past.
He writes of his fear, as a child, of going to bed at night. He would often wake up in the middle of the night in terror because he was disoriented and couldn't remember where he was. He hated sleeping alone and remembers with great pleasure one night when he was so sad and fearful that his beloved Mamma spent the night in his room.
It was in Combray that he became inclined toward becoming a writer. He is particularly struck by the beauty of the countryside around Combray, and especially loves the blossoms of the hawthorns which line the path to neighbor Charles Swann's house. He sets himself the task of describing everything that he sees to the best of his ability.
The second track of the narrative relates the backstory of a love affair between Charles Swann and a woman named Odette. Swann does not realize that Odette has a terrible reputation. He idealizes her as the embodiment of a beautiful painting by Botticelli. They marry and have a daughter named Gilberte, with whom Marcel later falls in love.
Odette quickly tires of Swann and proves to be a faithless wife, just as her reputation would have suggested. Swann is at first devastated by the betrayal and suffers the pangs of unrequited love. Eventually, he confronts Odette and learns the truth about all her sexual escapades.
Disappointed in love, Swann returns for comfort to the high society of aristocrats and royalty of which he had been a part before he met Odette. Eventually, he comes to see Odette as a very un-Botticelli-like figure and wonders at the fact that he could have ever experienced this great love for someone who wasn't even his "type"!
Marcel Proust's literary talent was nourished by the rich cultural and intellectual atmosphere in which he grew up. He was a noted socialite whose extraordinary intelligence and charm made him a favorite among the Parisian elite. He was a regular in many of the most sought-after salons in Paris. His experience as a member of the most exalted elite in society is reflected in a certain snobbery toward the bourgeoisie and working classes that is evident in his writing.
Reading this work was an exercise in patience. It forces one to slow down and pay strict attention if she does not wish to be lost forever in its maze-like sentences.
When I started reading, I had grandiose plans to push right on with reading all four volumes of this work, without a pause. I'm glad that I finally managed to read Swann's Way, but I definitely need a vacation from Proust before I proceed with the rest of his remembrances. Probably a long vacation. ...more
The Metamorphosis is one of those world classics that I have always intended to read but somehow just never got around to. Then the Google Doodle receThe Metamorphosis is one of those world classics that I have always intended to read but somehow just never got around to. Then the Google Doodle recently reminded me that it was the 130th anniversary of Franz Kafka's birth and I decided that July 2013 was the appropriate time to finally fulfill this particular resolution.
Even someone like myself who had never read the (blessedly short) novella is familiar with the basic story if they are even tangentially educated in the Western literature canon. Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning in his familiar bedroom in the family home to discover that, overnight, he has turned into a giant insect. What ensues is a senseless and disorienting story of menacing complexity and surreal distortion. In other words, it is the pure definition of Kafkaesque.
Gregor lives in a home with his parents and a sister, and the family employs at least a couple of servants. The most amazing thing about this amazing story for me was the fact that neither Gregor nor the household seem to show much surprise at his transformation. They (even Gregor himself) never seem to wonder why or how this has happened. They never call a doctor to try to find a cure for this unprecedented malady. They just accept it and try to adapt to the situation. They accepted the very unlikely event of a man turning into a giant insect as an unsurprising possibility.
When Gregor wakes up and realizes he is an insect, his first thoughts are about how he is going to get dressed and get to his job! Prior to his transformation, it seems that he was the sole support of the household. His life was his job. He found his self-worth in performing it. In fact, he lived a rather alienated and automated existence which seemed devoid of normal human emotion. In many ways, his life was already insect-like. Thus, his primary concern, post metamorphosis, is to be able to continue that existence. He is horrified at the thought that he might lose his work and his source of income.
His family, it seems, had taken Gregor and his financial support of them all for granted and they are appalled that this support will apparently not continue, but where is their concern for the personhood of Gregor?
At first, the sister shows some sympathy for her unfortunate brother's plight. She brings food to his room and attempts to keep the room clean, but as time goes by and she must begin to work, along with her mother and father, to help sustain the household, her care and concern for her brother begin to flag.
Gregor, meanwhile, continues to try to adapt to his new body. He tries to find the best way to walk, the best place to sit and to sleep, and the best food to devour. He finds that rancid food is the best. Fresh food is disgusting. He tries to talk and communicate but finds that humans can no longer understand him.
The family find themselves in increasingly degraded circumstances as they try to make ends meet. They rent a room to boarders for the extra income. Gregor becomes more and more of a burden to them and their attempts to keep him alive become feebler. Inevitably, so does Gregor and eventually he dies, in essence freeing the family to continue their own insect-like existence.
So, just what is the meaning of this weird tale? It seems a harsh critique of human existence. In Kafka's world, it seems that human lives are essentially meaningless and can be transformed overnight into an automaton-like existence. It's a dark and pessimistic, absurdist view of humanity but perhaps relevant for the way modern human lives have evolved. ...more
This is another of those ancient tales that I have loved since I first encountered it - in a Cultural Anthropology class in college. The characters ofThis is another of those ancient tales that I have loved since I first encountered it - in a Cultural Anthropology class in college. The characters of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are prototypes for so much that has come in literature in the last 4000+ plus years, including in the Bible. It seems that nothing IS new under the sun.
This is truly one of the must-reads for any student of human history. Especially that part of history that originated in the cradle of human culture that is the tortured land of Mesopotamia. ...more
This was a work that I had wanted to read for years. I would have liked to be able to read it in the language in which it was written, but even readinThis was a work that I had wanted to read for years. I would have liked to be able to read it in the language in which it was written, but even reading it in English, the poetry of the work grabbed me and kept me interested throughout, from Inferno through Purgatorio to Paradiso.
And yet, it is a work firmly grounded in the thirteenth century. Does it really have any relevance for us eight centuries later? Frankly, I can see very little. But the awesome vision of the author and his effort in completing this monumental work is inspiring. Look at what one human being can accomplish. ...more
I had my Nabokov period in my twenties. I was mesmerized by the man's writing and read everything of his that I could get my hands on. One of those thI had my Nabokov period in my twenties. I was mesmerized by the man's writing and read everything of his that I could get my hands on. One of those things was, of course, Lolita.
I can no longer be sure (because it was such a long time ago in the dim mists of my personal history) whether my memories of the book are truly memories of the book or of the old movie starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert and directed by Stanley Kubrick. I saw enough of that movie on television that it made a lasting impression on me. Either way, each (the movie and the book) in its own way was a tour de force.
I can remember finding parts of the book/movie laugh-out-loud funny when I first read/watched. Funny how time and life experiences change one's perspectives. Having children certainly changes one's perspectives. Having two daughters changes one's perspectives. I can no longer find anything about Humbert Humbert funny. He is a monster, a sick pedophile whose chosen prey is prepubescent girls.
This book was published in the U.S. sixty years ago this year. It was a very different world into which Nabokov birthed his creation. It's hard to even imagine today the kind of reaction it must have evoked at the time.
It was excoriated in some quarters as pornography and those critics were not far off the mark. On one level, it is a disgusting book on a disgusting subject that could only appeal to some very sick readers. Today, we live in a world where it is known that many priests, coaches, teachers, not to mention parents and step-parents, and others in positions of authority over defenseless children have taken advantage of and abused them to satisfy their own twisted lust. Humbert Humbert would be right at home in that crowd, although he would protest vociferously, with erudite language, against his inclusion.
And that is the other level on which this book can be read. Nabokov was such a master of language(s). The word play, the literary allusions, the wit with which the narrator Humbert expresses himself are all of the things that were so appealing to me about Nabokov's writing. They are the things that drew me to his books in the first place.
He was always a challenge to my understanding. He widened my horizons. He presented a test to my two years of French study because often long passages of his books were written in French. I loved that. It was like a secret puzzle to which I had the key.
But Lolita as erotica? There is nothing erotic about child rape unless you are truly sick, and let's not beat about bush, that is the subject of this novel. Twelve-year-old Lolita comes under the control of Humbert Humbert, the gentleman lodger in her mother's house who, in fact, married the mother so that he would have access to the daughter. When the mother meets an untimely death under the wheels of a neighbor's car, Humbert does not at first inform the daughter, who is away at camp.
Finally, after the funeral, he goes to pick up his step-daughter and sets out on a cross-country trip with her, still not informing her of her mother's death. He tells her instead that her mother is sick and in hospital. Along the way, when he is angry with her one day, he does tell her that her mother is dead. This twelve-year-old child is now completely in his power and has nowhere to turn.
This is Humbert's narration, of course, and he takes great pains to convince us that he was the one seduced and manipulated, that Lolita had already lost her virginity to a schoolmate, Charlie. He portrays himself as a man in love and as a dedicated and caring lover. Nabokov allows him this self-delusion, but occasionally we can see behind this veil of smoke that he blows in our face. We catch a glimpse when Lolita wistfully watches the interaction of one of her friends with the friend's loving father. We can see it in her resigned accessing to Humbert's sexual requirements of her; her bargaining for pocket money and gifts and for permission to participate in a school play in payment for her sexual favors. We can hear it when Humbert lets slip in his narration that every night after he feigns sleep, he can hear the child sobbing beside him in bed.
No, a sick piece of work he may be, but I can't work up any sympathy for Humbert Humbert. His sob stories of all his suffering do not soften my heart in the least. It has been irrevocably hardened by Lolita's nightly tears.
And so, even though this is an amazing accomplishment simply on the level of language and story-telling, I just can't bring myself to give it five stars. The subject matter is so distasteful to me that it interferes with my enjoyment of the artistic accomplishment.
Vladimir Nabokov was quite a writer. There are few who could touch him in skill, and he was known for writing about difficult and often unsavory subjects. Ada is another book of his that comes to mind. One has to wonder where the mild-mannered scholar and lepidopterist gained his curiosity about or his knowledge of such subject matter. Perhaps it takes a master writer to even make such subjects readable.