“The wall-eyed nurse came back.” That’s how it began, an extract of The Bell Jar my English teacher handed out for us to study. That single image made such a deep impression on me as a sixteen-year-old that, thirty years on, I still remember it. Before term was over I’d sought out and read the whole book.
If you’ve read my review of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, you’ll know it was at that lesson that I first heard about the Plath/Hughes story. Their story led me to Birthday Letters, and Birthday Letters made me decide to rediscover The Bell Jar.
Luckily, I never get rid of books (or hardly ever). It took me a while to find my old, slightly dog-eared copy, though, and that’s despite the fact my collection is neatly and logically ordered. I finally tracked it down among the biographies/auto-biographies – which goes to show how easy it is to blur fact and fiction when it comes to reading this fictionalised account of Plath’s own life.
The novel concerns high-achieving American student Esther Greenwood, her breakdown, suicide attempt, and treatment, including the electro-convulsive therapy that was the subject of the “wall-eyed nurse” extract. Plath wrote the book in 1961 and it was published first in the UK (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) in 1963, only a few weeks before her suicide. In the circumstances it’s difficult to imagine being unmoved by this book, given the subject matter.
What struck me most, re-reading it after these years, was the power of the tone of voice: deadpan, almost flat; objective, apparently, but actually immensely self-absorbed. It is an unmistakeably youthful voice and, equally, the unmistakeable voice of the depressive – a disinterested but partial observer of its own life. (At sixteen, I saw only the former; now I recognise both.)
The horror behind this wholly reasonable, wholly skewed voice is encapsulated perfectly in the title image of the bell jar: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”
And the horror remains in the background, even as the treatment starts to work. “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.” The bell jar, still intact, hangs like the sword of Damocles over Esther’s head. This is an image of respite, not cure. In time (we infer) the jar will fall and cover her again.
*** Highly recommended.