“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Have you ever read, and been affected by, a book that you never forgot about, but upon a second reading many years later you ended up wondering what made such an impression the first time? That’s where I find myself at the moment with The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
I first read The Bell Jar sometime in the late 1970s. While I couldn’t have told you after a year or two exactly how the story went, I never forgot about the book and the impression it made on me upon that first reading. As the years passed, and I struggled with my depression, the book would come to mind occasionally but I never bothered to buy it or check it out from the library to re-read. But there has been many a time over the years that, had I read the above quote, I would have nodded my head and thought I know exactly what she means. And I do still relate to that at times, especially at family gatherings.
In recent months, I kept thinking about The Bell Jar and finally decided to check it out from the library at the same time as a couple of others and just a few days ago finally picked it up. The timing of reading The Bell Jar turned out, for reasons I’ll state in another post, to be a bit discomfiting, but once started I was determined to finish.
Maybe I was hoping this reading would give me some insight into myself or mental illness in general. Instead, I’m not even sure why it is still lauded as a wonderful view of a woman’s descent into madness. It does provide a sad and frightening look into the way the mentally ill were often treated, both physically and verbally, in the first half of the 20th century.
I’m the kind of reader who gets irritated when a writer uses the wrong word, such as her reference in one part to a “parcel of kids” when she should have used the word passel. But beyond that, I found the flow of the writing rather disjointed and sometimes hard to follow. Part of it was the time-hops, but there were abrupt scene jumps from something like an evening at the asylum to walking down the path at college with no transition. There were other parts that left questions in the mind that could have been easily clarified with another sentence or paragraph added.
As we all do to some degree, I have obviously changed since I first read The Bell Jar, but I never thought such changes would affect the way I perceived something I had read before. Our perception of people and events around us are affected by our personal experiences and knowledge, a fact that was brought home to me with this second reading.