Esther Greenwood describes her slow descent into depression in 50’s America. One should think that such a book would be bleak, but it’s not. Far from it.
There’s a writing lesson here: in describing an imploding sun, rather than attach oneself to the encroaching darkness the author focuses on the last rays of light and the way they tend to thin out and pour into a desolate, cold universe.
And boy oh boy does she do it in style. The writing is chock-full of metaphors and similes that are sprayed as by a machine gun, and they land fast and furious.
The narrative glides effortlessly from her summer job in New York as assistant editor to a fashion and literary magazine, trying to catch as much as possible of the city even as her life is on female 1950’s rails: she lives in a woman-only hotel and spends her time either at work or at quasi-mandatory social appearances.
Here’s a quote I found salient:
‘They had the windows fixed so you couldn't really open them and lean out, and for some reason this made me furious.’The windows are saying that she doesn’t need to decide whether they should open or not, because the decision has been made for her, at some higher, abstract level.
Fast-forward. The summer in New York ends. She was hoping to lose her virginity (I am consciously using the term ‘lose her virginity’ here because it weighs on her like an anchor to childhood that she feels compelled to buckle) and the closest she has come to it is by being almost raped by a woman-hater. That while the rape was under way her first thought was to ‘let it happen’ is the first glimmer that she isn’t merely living through adolescent angst but slipping into real psychological turmoil.
Back at home, sleep begins to elude her. This is described just so: that she hasn’t slept in so many days. As the novel unfolds, the tally grows worryingly and her perception of her surroundings grows increasingly surreal. Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist. The ensuing conversation is historically relevant:
‘“Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong.”I won’t insert a spoiler here, but really, what would a patriarchal psychiatrist in the 1950’s prescribe for a young woman whose problems seem neurological in nature?
I turned the words over suspiciously, like round, sea-polished pebbles that might suddenly put out a claw and change into something else.
What did I think was wrong?
That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.’
Esther’s descent accelerates.
The downward sweep isn’t into a bottomless pit, and here the author offers real indications of psychiatry’s usefulness when Esther eventually finds the help she needs. The ‘Bell Jar’ that descended on her life and put a rift between her and the outside world is not a foregone conclusion but can be alleviated, even if it can never be totally allayed.
An amazing read, one that realizes the difficult feat of rendering depression realistically, showing the texture of despair, while simultaneously sparing the reader its unbearable weight.