Why The Bell Jar is my favourite read of 2020

The problem with social convention is that its mere existence mandates its conformity no matter how tacit it is; these can exist among people who have never agreed explicitly to adopt them nor explicitly referred to them as conventions they have. Esther Greenwood knows these are forces to be reckoned with, she questions the irrationality of these conventions and so much so that she walks into the depths of mental illness, suicide ideation and eventually a suicide attempt, despite the success she has had through her own intellect and hard work. Our Esther wants to be a great writer and she’d rather be nothing else; she’d rather die than conform. She walks the tight ropes of disgust, not apathy or scorn; of internal conflict, not self-possession; of fear and guilt, not repudiation – the former of all these perhaps more maddening. No wonder she is unable to write, writing her raison d’être. Written in the early 1960’s about the 50’s, this book for me perfectly encapsulates the 20th Century woman, the slow slog towards an idea revolution which shortly after gave us our most coveted (second) wave of feminism. Maybe because the book is not far from Plath’s reality, it does not attempt an explanation of mental illness and dramatisation of events/mental processes leading to the suicide. It gives an inside view into the mostly lucid, rational thinking and feelings of Esther Greenwood, the shift in mood subtle and gradual as if walking us through her nightmare rather than making us a spectator at a theatre/or indie film complete with alternating background scores attempting to dissect a perverse sickness for the more mentally untouched.

This book took me on a journey with wit and humour. I reveled in the scene she throws piece after piece of her wardrobe into the New York night, resonated with her inability to write, empathised with her innate rejection of social norms, smiled at the lateral mirror image of herself in Joan and rejoiced in the excellent use of prose, only slightly surprised at the slight divergence from the violent style of her poems.

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In this post, I have talked about how social convention and expected conformity of it can have such a negative impact on our mental health, just like Esther Greenwood. She was averse to marriage, giving up her writing dreams to be a doting wife and mother. She held on to her virginity and felt like she could not find love because sex could be the BIG TRAP (babies). This is one of the aspects of her layered yet lucid awareness of convention and it’s ridiculousness. She spirals into a dark place, unable to write even, because she is unable to resolve the conflict between her different desires – to be loved but not to have to give up a career for the conventional life. Once she sees a doctor for contraception, that “millstone” is overcome.

This book seemed more or less, a non-fictional narrative on the internal struggle of women (and people in general?) against social convention and norms they do not see eye to eye with. And without the right resolve, things can get…. well, tricky. The beginning of The Bell Jar introduces us to the psyche of Esther whose dream to become a writer is frustrated by her perception of nihility. But what is noticeable is her perception of being different from other girls – a difference that forebodes abnormality.

Esther does not like the company of her friends with whom she left for New York. She finds these girls awfully bored to her and that such girls make her sick. It is understandable that this disinterestedness of Esther may be due to finding a mismatch between her tastes and that of her friends, but this disinterestedness to befriend does not bode well when it comes to the socialising aspect of human nature, a belongingness necessary for conducive lives.

In addition, look at the following quote: “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.” So, I know that all of these factors compounded with her predisposed neurosis as is evident in the way she speaks of separate dichotomies, the manner of the death of her father, his past and so, all play a role in this spiralling of mental health. But to me, the major theme is still reflective of the very damaging and dangerous effects of hypocritical norms and convention for women vs men…. And apathy, nihilism and turn to the “death wish” to self-assuage from the tyranny of internal conflicts, detachment from life, social displacement – all those collective forces that are conducive to preventing suicide; and the simple theme of the non-conformity born of this and its irrationality.

All of that is fine, but how do we decide which book is the best we’ve read in a year or for whatever arbitrary period one wants to make such a judgement? What parameters does one consider? Is it purely of literary merit or one that provokes thought; one that challenges norms or one that informs; one that narrates or one that dictates? Or is it the one that elicits a strong visceral response, a paramount feature of all the above?

I had a knee-jerk reaction last week when I was asked which was my favourite read of this year and I thought of the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. But now I’m not sure if it is, the Bell Jar isn’t superior or inferior to the other books I picked up this year. But nevetheless, it continues to glow a little bit brighter in the underground cave of my reading trove. The explanation is simple, the nonconformist turnpikes are more attractive than conformist or expected narratives. In the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hornsey and his colleagues even provide empirical evidence for this. Esther Greenwood did not want to conform and I don’t want to either. She spiraled into a dark place of hopelessness of the battle against the cultural hangover of gendered expectations, and I have precariously balanced myself atop it’s precipice. She found hope and refuge in the advancements of hard science and cultural loopholes just as I shunned emotional markers for freedom but grasped science and empiricism as a lifeline.

After a long needed reunion with a girlfriend yesterday, when a lot of fleeting thoughts took the form of words and came fore in an attempt to involve, engage and restore the time with each other lost to distance, I had a gnawing thought. One that gnawed because it only came into my purview after some damage done from passing judgement on others – one that we all do when someone is not on the same page as you. A thought that also calmed me. There is something so human about rebellion. Everyone is leading a little revolution of their own, challenging an idea that does not sit well in their gut. For everyone, their little paths of digression and transgressions are radical, empowering. I might have skipped a few pages than another, and someone else might be a couple of pages ahead of me but change is differential, cumulative, phased and we are contributing to our circle or realm of existence. A lovely thought that allowed me to sleep in a dreamless state. These little circles we all rebel in, and wish to revolutionise intentionally or not lie in concentrics, adding weight and volume to other struggles that extend into further radii. Maybe The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was a recognition of one of these circles, the change that we step on regularly to move further upwards.

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