Under the Bell Jar

“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.

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3 thoughts on “Under the Bell Jar

  1. Yes, it happened to me on a few occasions. And I have to say it goes both ways. I read books that, on second reading, really really disappointed me… especially when a few years passed in between like it happened to you. I suppose we do change more than we realise, and I also think that emotionally, we react very differently as we get older.

    It also happened to me that I enjoyed a book a lot more on second reading. It was The Hobbit.
    The first time I read it, as a teenager I quite liked it, but I thought it was nothing special. When I reread it as an adult, i couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it. I saw so many layers in it and I kept thining, wait, this is not the book I read so many years ago. This is SO good!

    Yes, I suppose we do change 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had the same exact reaction. Read it in high school and found it so awesome. Then reread it two years ago and thought, hm… It just all comes do to where we are in our life when we read something. I can do the same thing with a Bible verse. One will hit me between the eyes and I’ll make a note in the margin of my Bible and date it. Ten years — or sometimes even two years later — I’m reading in the vicinity again and have absolutely no idea why that verse stuck out to me. Even my notes don’t explain it! Life and literature are both fluid like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve yet to read The Bell Jar. It’s one of the books you feel like you must read! I find the subject intriguing but at the same time daunting. Perhaps the summer is a good time to tackle a theme like mental illness, rather than the dark, cold, winter. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book!

    Liked by 1 person

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