There is a point towards the end of The Bell Jar where Esther Greenwood is sitting at the funeral of a friend and she stops to consider her own existence with ‘I am, I am, I am’. Leave it to Sylvia Plath to use another person’s death to gloat that she had somehow made it through. Not only that, but, given the fact that the friend in question, a girl named Joan, is a far more fun and generally more interesting woman to say the least, you wouldn’t be alone in wishing that it was Esther in the coffin while Joan had a quick go at a John Clare impression.
But that’s The Bell Jar all over. ‘Look at me!’ Plath screams, in an autobiographical novel so thinly veiled that the pseudonym is practically invisible, ‘I’m alive! I’m miserable, but I’m alive!’ By the end of this ordeal of a book I was trying to find a gas oven of my own. It’s a practical ‘dummy’s guide to suicide’, and I mean the dummy part; Esther tries and fails to kill herself so many times, (hanging, self-harm, pills and a particularly enjoyable drowning attempt) that it stops being shocking, for shock is what she was going for. Shock was always what she was going for. All this crap about Nazi lampshades and fucking her father; she just couldn’t get over the look of her own words on the paper, and this self-indulgent book proves it.
For those spared this diary of a nervous breakdown, The Bell Jar follows Esther’s attempts to become a successful magazine journalist on a scholarship in New York. It all sounds nice and civilised to me, but no. Not for Esther. She’s depressed, and bored, and suffocated, and has to go for electric shocks to get her all perky again. Attempting to portray her inner darkness, Plath instead trivialises her pain and asks the reader for something; sympathy, judgment maybe, it’s hard to tell. Instead, you’ll be rolling your eyes with disdain so frequently that someone will think you’re having a stroke.
There can be no doubt that Sylvia, and by association Esther, had a difficult time with life, but writing about it in an almost casual way is in no way the best method of expressing that pain. A few more hugs, and a warmer mother-daughter relationship might have made this book into Sylvia in the City; a sort of Devil Wears Prada kind of thing. Instead, we get a pill-popping bore. Would you trust a writer who couldn’t even drown herself? Thought not.