Wednesday, September 1, 2010

She might have picked them all out.

Let's do a literature post. I like literature posts. My Animus told me I've been thinking about history and academia too much, it's driving me insane. I'm inclined to agree. Let's turn to happy topics.

Let's talk about Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar.

[And that's what we like to call "ironic juxtaposition."]

[And this - Basil Exposition.]

When the first American edition of The Bell Jar came out in 1970, Mrs. Plath maintained that her daughter, shocked by the novel's success, had begged her brother to block its American publication. She similarly postulated that Bell Jar was half of a larger opus, the dark half, which would have been followed by the healthy view of the world. Plath had been striving to portray not only a world within a bell jar, but a world experienced through the distortion of a bell jar upon the eyes.

And didn't she? Esther's world is full of conflations, convolutions, distortions - she embroils babies and death and pain; sexual pleasure and over eating; the careful poise of debutantes and the girls' ineptitude. There's the sense that any scene at a party or in a hospital weren't quite right, that they've been told perfectly through the voice of a confused college student who doesn't know all of the personal politics, all of the jargon and reasons and details, as if the action hides behind the partial obfuscation of a scrim.

The novel begins with:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of electrocution made me sick [...and] I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.
The Rosenbergs begin it all, not because it is so wholly political, the novel, but just because they became entrapped in their own bell jar, because their bell jar - in news articles and propaganda and a sense of propriety - pervade the background of the entire novel. When Esther feels the closest to giving in to her sexual needs (with Konstantin in New York, with the math professor in Boston), the Russians are right there. Propriety. This is not how a lady behaves; even Joan, the one to fall prey to her personal demons (and should, therefore, be the farthest from play-acting), seems like she is putting on a performance to/for Esther. Esther writes as if to say: This is not how a lady ought to act, but she does, sometimes, for the attention, even to the point of hurting herself.

When does polite behavior end and the neurosis set in? Of all those situations, had Esther 500 and a room of one's own, had the benefit even of one of the twentieth-century's social evolutions, would she have sunk so low?
I thought it would be discouraging for a woman who'd just had a baby to see somebody plonk down a big bouquet of dead flowers in front of her, so I steered the trolley to a washbasin in an alcove in the hall and began to pick out all the flowers that were dead.

Then I began to pick out all those that were dying.

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