Upon reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

A smart and accomplished girl in her third year of college gets a highly desirable summer internship as an editor at a prestigious fashion magazine in New York City, and proceeds to blow the opportunity and lose her way by going slowly insane. After returning home, she attempts suicide and finds herself in an asylum for several months where she receives electroshock treatments. At the end she apparently recovers, returning to college, but the suicide of a fellow inmate rocks her and makes her question her long-term existence.

In the middle of the story I found myself angry at the author—the story is very autobiographical—for blowing her opportunities and ruining her life, even though I felt I should be empathetic and understanding. By the end, as she recovered, I was more accepting.

In 1st person, past tense, Plath’s writing is full of strong images, metaphors, and clever turns-of-phrase, her use of language being essentially poetic. I admire her writing.

I also got a strong sense of how different personal realities can be. She lived (as do many) in a world dominated by personal and emotional relationships, a world of tenuously controlled and often irrational passions. I must be a polar opposite to this, because my world seems dominated by objective physical realism. Perhaps I am to be pitied because my relational reality is shallow, but even putting aside depression and suicide, I prefer mine in most respects. Reading Plath makes me wonder anew how people can think and exist so differently.

Sylvia Plath’s world is not mine, and mine not hers. This is not a bad thing; in fact, this is one of the reasons we read (or should read) fiction—to expand our personal realities.

Plath committed suicide a few weeks after her book was released. The first edition was attributed to her pen name and was not critically acclaimed. The second edition a few years later identified her as the author and, to the cynically minded, began it’s rise to fame upon the back of her tragedy.

I wish she’d lived to write and rhyme into her promising future. But if she had, most of us may never have heard of her.

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