Drew's Reviews > The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
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's review
Jan 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: boulder-public-library
Read from February 07 to 10, 2012

The Trajectory

My train arrived at NYC Penn Station at 2:00 in the morning. The train that would take me back to Rochester didn't leave until 7:00, so I had five hours to kill. Hardly anybody was in the station when I got there; aside from the passengers arriving with me, who dispersed quickly, there were only cops and janitors and an assortment of homeless and/or crazy people in the station. The first thing I had to do was go to the bathroom. I must have missed some magical cutoff, though, for as I walked into the bathroom, I bumped straight into three older homeless men being swept forward, as with a push broom, by a police officer. I asked him if I could go to the bathroom, and he said no, that it was closed. Was there another bathroom in the station? No.

The second thing I had to do, which I'd also been planning to do in the bathroom, was to fill up my Nalgene with some fresh water. I looked for a water fountain, but there was none. No water, then, until the bathrooms opened again. I had an ounce or two of sour-tasting dregs left in the Nalgene from the train, though, so I'd be okay. Third thing: a place to sit. I walked around the station until I found a deli that still appeared to be open. A homeless man followed me the whole way, saying, "Mic check. Mic check. Listen to me..." The deli guys would let me sit in their deli and read until three, if I bought something. With my last bit of cash, I bought an 8 dollar sandwich that I ate in three bites. Another homeless guy came into the deli to ask me for money. I gave him the change from the sandwich, because I didn't want to be walking around a train station full of homeless with a pocket full of ringing change. Later I saw him slammed up against the wall by three policemen, who took away the bottle of wine he'd bought with the change he'd scrounged.

Eventually, they asked me to leave the deli, so I did. I tried to find a clean place on the floor to sit and doze. I sat on some steps and leaned against my backpack, and just as I fell asleep, I felt a kick or a nudge. There was a cop standing above me, telling me I had to stand up and move on. This happened several times over the next few hours. I couldn't get a drink, I couldn't go to the bathroom, I couldn't sit, I couldn't sleep. There was no one to talk to. I stood against a railing and tried to read while listening to another hobo talk to a pillar about 30 feet away. I thought, if this were my life, if I were really suddenly homeless and had no family or prospects, how long would it be until I started talking to pillars? I'd give it about a week.

It seems to me that the transition from reasonably-well-off to dire straits might be easier than I thought. Say you have no living family, few friends, and little education. You have a steady minimum-wage job, and then you lose it. Maybe the government takes care of you for a while, but nobody's hiring, and even if you do get an interview, it's been so long that you botch it. Maybe you develop a drinking habit, and sink more and more money into it. It doesn't occur to you to beg for money until you've already become homeless. At this point, maybe you make enough money by panhandling to survive, but you're dirty and sickly. No normal people will talk to you or touch you. It's hard to find a place where people will let you use the bathroom. How long could anyone stay sane under those conditions? And once you've lost it, how hard is it to get it back? Certainly nobody can afford to hire you now. I don't know. But it seems pretty bleak.

The same mechanism seems to be what's at play in The Bell Jar, but with depression rather than homelessness. Maybe it starts with malaise or cynicism, or something a little more physical, like loss of appetite. Nothing too horrible. You've got a good life other than that. But eventually the feeling starts creeping into everything, seeping in at the edges of your life. You start reading too much into everything. What if your friends aren't really your friends? What if their motivations aren't pure? You know yours certainly aren't. At some point, it gets worse, maybe because of an event, or maybe not. Now things that used to give you pleasure don't give you as much. Existential quandary has given way to existential dread. You don't want to talk to people, so you don't answer your phone. You try not to go out in public. Everyday tasks like cleaning now either seem insurmountable or pointless. When you start feeling paralyzed -- maybe it happens when you really need to go to the bathroom, and you look at your limbs and will them to move but they won't -- you realize you have to address this somehow.

The Stigma

You can fight, and lose. You can run, and be caught. You can hide, and be found. That's how this works. That's why all your bad dreams seem to be about being chased by something nameless that's right around the corner. Or you can surrender. Even now there are two options: you can kill yourself, but since your paralysis prevents you from making even the most quotidian gestures, this seems difficult. The second option is to tell someone. Maybe you tell a friend. This turns out to be a mistake. She no longer says "How are you?", but "How are you?" And you can't have a normal conversation without her looking at you funny. Or, no, maybe you tell a parent. This turns out to be even worse, because you've pretty much ruined that parent's life. Now she (we'll say it's your mom) is wondering what she could possibly have done wrong. She's provided for you, given endlessly and selflessly, and most importantly, loved you unconditionally. And doesn't love conquer all? Doesn't it?

This is the part where you go to see the psychiatrist. He's got a Freudian beard and rimless glasses, and he's looking not at your eyes, but at some point in the ether just above your head. And he doesn't even ask you to tell him about your mother. He asks you what seems to be the problem, as if he can't tell. You're sitting there with your lank hair and dirty clothes, you haven't exchanged significant words with anyone in months, there's nothing you want more than to get out of this inhuman, antiseptic room, and he's asking you to explain. To expound. To tell your life's story, unabridged, in all its dubious glory. To relive every horrible moment of the recent past. He gives you an encouraging smile and you look at the clock.

Or maybe it's a woman with colorless hair and a colorless, clinical face. You try to imagine the way she lives when she's not in the office. She tells you she can recommend some medication. This is the first thing that's gotten a rise out of you in a while. You refuse, indignantly. Won't mood regulators turn you into an unthinking, unfeeling zombie? Or, you think, your illness (this is what you've been told it is) is so profound that surely it can't be influenced by medicine. And there's nothing else this person can do for you, so you leave.

And now you're dealing with the Stigma. Everyone knows, or could know, what you're experiencing. But you know what they're actually thinking: that you should just will yourself to be happy. Depression is all in your head, isn't it? So can't you defeat it mentally? This is the gulf that separates you from everybody. Now you've got two enemies; the original, nameless one, and the Stigma. You decide this is the time for the ultimate surrender, and you make plans.

Maybe, like Esther Greenwood, you fuck up those plans. Now you're sick or horribly injured, and you're being committed to an asylum (or whatever they call them now), and worse, everyone knows what you did. And half of them think you just did it for attention. (Please. As if you wanted more eyes on you.) In the asylum you can't tell if you're crazy or sane, and you spend most of your time neurotically comparing yourself to the other residents: are you better off or worse off than they are? And which do you really want to be? Because some part of you wants to be the most fucked-up patient in the place, to prove that you're fighting tooth and nail just to be alive. Eventually you're forced to admit you're not. Some of these people are catatonic, or they scream all the time. You sure don't do that.

But you realize the paradox, the dark humor, the catch-22 of your state. You realize that you've now made your life as shitty as it always felt it should be. Between the horrible food, the impersonal staff, and the regular electroshock "therapy," it's actually now not worth living. But you can't kill yourself in an asylum, or at least that's their goal. So your revised plan is to fool them into thinking you're fine, so that you can leave and go kill yourself in the privacy of your own home.

You do. You can't believe they're so gullible; they're letting you out in the exact same state you went in.

The Animal

You don't kill yourself. Instead, you're grateful for normal human interaction. You spend some time with your family, maybe you get a job or go back to school. You make new friends, friends who don't know about where you've been. Maybe, like Sylvia Plath, you're finally getting recognition that you deserve. Your whole recent past starts to fade into the background, and you try to help it do so. Your life's now as good as it was back before you told anyone what the problem was. By a heroic act of willpower, you've beaten it. You've won.

But you haven't won. You can't win; you can only prolong the game. Once it finds you, this thing preys on you for life. Sometimes it acts like a remora, sometimes it acts like a shark. But it's always the same animal.

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05/06/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Stephen M This is very powerful stuff. Wow. Great work.

message 2: by Megha (new)

Megha Great review, Drew.

Drew Thanks! Writing it was...an interesting process.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Hall of Famer right here. Good work.

Jessica Rmz Amazing! I couldn't stop reading this for a second. Well done sir.

Drew Thanks! For what it's worth, the book I was reading in the train station was Bolaño's 2666, which is some of my favorite Mexican lit. Very bleak under the circumstances though.

message 7: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Great writing.

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