I have failed in my promise of writing a blog post each week, but I’m back now.
Where have I been you ask? The softball field. Yes, yes, not only am I a blogger, a teacher, and a 25-year-old human person, but I’m also a softball coach. I know, I’m quite impressive. (Note: High sarcasm, not narcissism created that last line.)
But, as I said, I’m back now, and I have a new series to introduce to you all. It’s called “Books I Should Have Read in School,” and it’s about just that.
I pride myself on the education I received, but as always, there were a few things that I missed either because they weren’t in the curriculum or because I chose SparkNotes over reading (which, in all honesty, is probably the more likely reason I missed these books).
I’m starting this series with The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I first heard of this book while watching Gilmore Girls in high school. The show made a reference to putting one’s head in the oven, and through research, I discovered it was in reference to Plath. The Bell Jar is one of those books that has always been on my reading list but one that I have never gotten around to actually reading. The new year seemed like the perfect opportunity to read it, and so I did.
The novel is about a woman named Esther Greenwood. She is a beautiful, talented, and successful young woman who slowly seeps into the depths of insanity. Plath builds a novel in which the reader can experience the journey alongside Esther. It happens slowly and gradually, so much so that the reader often finds moments of clarity and rationalism amidst the despair, anguish, and insanity, especially when it comes to defining her role in sex and femininity.
When I told my fellow English teachers I was delving into Plath, they all wished me luck, which nearly detracted me from reading the book. However, as I made my way through each chapter, I found myself connected to Esther and her thoughts. At first, she didn’t seem all that insane to me. Her notions of femininity, likening it to being trapped in a bell jar, keeping something delicate from the outside world, made sense to me. As the book progresses, it becomes easier to feel Esther’s descent into insanity as it is truthfully and honestly depicted.
Even though this book was published in 1971, I think this definition of femininity still resonates with the modern female. We’ve come a long way in equality, but we still have a long way to go. The double standard of a man’s sexual experience and a woman’s sexual experience is still prevalent. Women are still seen as delicate things that need protecting, maybe not as obviously as in the past, but it’s an attitude that is still around.
The strength of Esther’s depiction made me wonder if I, myself, was going insane, but I think that’s just part of Plath’s skill as an author. She crafts a character that is as real as we are. She’s relatable and her experiences are as well.
The book made me think of mental illness differently too — that it can be less chaotic and more static. In Esther’s case, it was a rational descent into irrationality. She still maintains her wits even while undergoing shock treatments and while institutionalized. She is an important character for young women to read because she confronts this piece of ourselves that we all repress. The one that teaches us that even in great adversity, we can overcome. Everyone can relate to feeling “very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel,” whether we allow ourselves to admit it or not. But, it’s how we handle that stillness that defines who we are.
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about missing this book in school. Reading it at 25 gives me a different perspective than if I had read it at 15. I think if I read it at a younger age, I would have missed many of the intricate emotions described in the novel.
Sometimes it takes you a while to feel that you’ve missed something, even when you know, rationally, you have. That’s what Esther taught me, and that’s what I hope she teaches you too.