I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.— Franz Kafka; January 27, 1904I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was... (Chapter 7)
There is a lulling silence engulfing this entire book, and if it weren’t for the darkening clouds approaching, an infinite palette brimming with all the shades of creation, one may never guess that it is the calm before the storm. Amid the impending commotion, the ancient state of confusion hovering over this land, a tree has already started to sense the chaos. A fig tree is losing its branches, one by one, as the storm unleashes its fury and time passes us by. The house does no longer provides shelter; its white walls won’t stop the cold, we see the ceiling yet we’ll feel the rain. Crystals are besieging us. The captives in the world of glass feel it all.
My first encounter with Sylvia Plath’s work was Ariel. It was a good read but it didn’t leave me memorable impressions. Later I understood how excruciatingly personal her poetry was, thus missing a plethora of subtle vocals, strong undertones, harrowing melodies. After reading about her life and watching a biopic, the connection was absolutely different regarding, for instance, the same two poems I had read months ago. There may be a lack of lyrical substance, of the mellifluous quality in language worthy of all praises, but to me, the beauty of her verse lies on her honest display of emotions through complex and raw imagery. I find that openness refreshing. How unsafe it is to be on the brink of vulnerability, with a bunch of emotions for one person or a whole world to see. And yet, how brave; giving free expression to such feelings, turning them into creative energy. How invigorating. Even when no one is listening to anyone. Not even the ones who complain about how deaf the world is.
Under these circumstances, I decided to revisit her poetry someday. The thing that triggered this series of fortunate events was a review by a friend, which made me want to give Plath’s writing another try, because I had sensed many times that she was an author I would certainly love – inexplicable hunches. Therefore, I dived into her only novel, The Bell Jar, first published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” and under her name in 1967. It tells the story of Esther Greenwood, the young heiress of several of Plath’s life experiences.
The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.
I dreaded this review; I knew that from this novel would emerge a personal journal barely touching upon the merits of the book. I postponed the process many times since I didn’t want to deal with it, the easiest path evoking an infantile self-preservation, considering the world as an enormous rug where one can hide every unpleasant feeling, all the mirrors whose reflections we don’t dare to acknowledge.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
In this novel, I found indecision under the apposite metaphor of a fig tree; undying portions of time where absence is a unilateral reality, and the inability to fit the standards to which a woman is supposed to belong – a perpetual rift between professional development and motherhood. The disparities between the world of a man and the encapsulated universe of a woman in mid-20th-century America. Or any place, any time.
I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.
Such differences constitute a theme that is deeply explored in this book, and from all perspectives, such as work and sexuality.
Whether she knew it or not, Philomena Guinea was buying my freedom. “What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb,” I had told Doctor Nolan. “A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.”
While fighting against her demons, we find in Esther a powerful and perceptive character, full of conviction and harboring a strong yearning for independence, a situation that naturally didn’t involve the oppressive presence of a man absorbing her individuality like an unwavering sponge. However, the way her mind worked was much more profound than a trendy dislike composed of empty words. It was a search for identity in a society ruled by men and in which she felt inadequate most of the time. Through the character’s reflections, we witness her longing for liberation from the ties of the expected.
The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.
It is certainly striking that this novel, which deals with complex themes under such a stifling atmosphere, could also make me smile. Esther has a unique sense of humor and some of her comments regarding a vast array of things were rather amusing. Under the night that never seemed to end, trying to illuminate the long corridors of her mind, accompanied by voices, electricity and despair, she made me her confident and brought me smiles to pass the time.
The Bell Jar is an ambitious work, as I read before, but it’s not a perfect novel. There are some fissures that should prevent me from giving it a 5-star rating. Nevertheless, I changed my first rating from four to five stars; it is on my “favorites” shelf, another favorite axe, and it has rekindled my feelings for Plath. I am grateful for the story she shared. And for the fate she forged for her character. I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am. Despite the darkness in which this book is immersed, a sense of hope still lingers even after finishing this somber journey. Fig trees are on solid ground, awaiting for courage, a leap of faith, life-changing decisions – meaning, beauty, uniqueness. The silence, a limpid layer which allows to admire the now splendid azure sky, is no longer an ominous sign. As a small stone is thrown into a pond, causing violent ripples that soon vanish while the former serenity is restored, such silence is interrupted briefly by the sound of glass breaking. In the midst of too much consciousness, those small shivers are a vital part of the ritual for being born twice—patched, retreaded and approved for the road.