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Sylvia Plath's novel was standard issue in art schools across America. When I was an art student, just about every brat with thrift-shop black clothes, messed-up hair and snotty attitudes had a copy of that book wherever they went. I used to heckle them for their uniform individuality.

It finally dawned on me that I spent years making fun of a book I never read. Just days after this embarrassing insight, I found an old paperback edition for two bucks. Actually reading THE BELL JAR was a pleasant surprise. Here are some random observations from a man who swears never to talk about things he doesn’t know about. Well, not until it’s time to start teaching again.


Life's a Beach: The moody
young artist.

Believe It

This is the most chilling, convincing account of a nervous breakdown I have ever read. Maybe because I knew the book’s reputation before knowing the book itself, but I expected the prose to be “expressive” and sloppy. Instead, the actual storytelling mechanics are surprisingly conservative and easily understood. Hell, it’s the most sympathy I’ve ever had for a well-off white chick with no real problems.

What the Hell is a Bell Jar?

Never hearing of this term before, I had to look it up. According to Random House, it is “a bell-shaped glass vessel or cover for protecting delicate instruments, or for holding gases in chemical experiments.” Since Ms. Plath was born in Winthrop in 1932, she probably saw a lot of bell jars. The novel was first printed in 1963.

She described her 1953 nervous breakdown by saying it was like an invisible glass dome descended upon her for no reason. Once trapped within this metaphorical barrier she could see, but not touch or be touched by the outside. “... with its stifling distortions” , the bell jar also warped her ability to perceive of reality. “To the person in the bell jar ... the world itself is the bad dream.”

From page 196-97:

“I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air...I sank back in the grey, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn’t stir.”

More from page 227, the beginning of Chapter 18:

“All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.”


A Bell Jar in Action: Max tries again.

I was born only a year before the book was published. The closest thing to a bell jar I ever saw was on the 1960’s sitcom GET SMART. Whenever secret agent hero Maxwell Smart thought his office was bugged by the enemy, he told his boss to use the “Cones of Silence.” Giant glass domes would come down from the ceiling and encase each man individually. Then they would try to have a conversation, but the intercom system never worked. Cracked me up every time.

A Swell Drawing Babe

The edition I found also printed some of Ms. Plath's drawings. Whenever the drawings of a famous crazy person is “discovered”, they usually suck. Sylvia’s black-and-white line drawings of simple cottage and seaport scenes were clear and crisp. She could have made it as an illustrator.

Cherry Bomb

Ms. Plath presents a most ... clinical approach to losing her virginity.


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