August 18, 2019:
Next was naturally The Bell Jar. But it was a very different experience.
At the time it was only recently available in the U.S., where reviewers were reading it through the filter of The Catcher in the Rye. I found the comparison glib, and sexist. The two works are entirely different orders of observation and intent. Plath's writing frightened and haunted me. Salinger's left me exasperated and to a certain degree contemptuous.
Salinger is didactic, elitist, class-bound, smug. Plath is hilarious, self-deprecating, vastly more humane, and a far better writer. Esther Greenwood's a working class girl on scholarship, Holden Caulfield's an entitled Park Avenue twit. Esther's driven because she has to be, Holden's the ur-slacker because he can be. Esther's brilliant, Holden's a clod. Salinger romanticized mental illness, equating breakdown with enlightenment. Plath's narration of her attempted suicide made me cry.
Salinger had no direct impact, but he led to Kierkegaard, who became unfortunately central for a time. Plath's impact was immediately visceral. Not only the alarming fragility she narrates, but most particularly it's internalness, by which I mean, its origin within her own psyche, rather than from some external shock.1 Esther like Plath herself is broken. That's just how she is, and in the absence of scientific understanding of neurochemistry its mystery was frightening. I knew I wasn't right — was I broken? Would I one day crawl under my home with a fistful of sleeping pills and a big glass of water?
I've re-read it this week. In the days since, I haven't been able to stop crying. I attribute that not merely to my current fragility but also to the beauty of Plath's prose, and the power of her intellect, and the infinitely sad depth of my inability to protect her.
1. Daphne Merkin writes, "Men, that is, have cannily figured out how to sidestep the implication of moral failing that attaches to mental illness—as well as the specific criticism of self-indulgence that is attributed to more introspective accounts of this condition—by insisting on a force outside themselves, or on a purely genetic susceptibility. The female version, by contrast, tends to tip the other way. As epitomized by Anne Sexton’s poetry and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, female sufferers tend to take ownership of the condition of depression, accepting that it springs not only from errant biology but from a yawning inner lack—some elusive craving for wholeness or well-being. This writing is usually highly interior almost to a fault: the world in which the narrator moves when she is not depressed is given such short shrift that it tends to fall away entirely." (Daphne Merkin, This Close to Happy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017 (p. 13).) While I find the female/male generalization a bit exaggerated — IMO the best autobiographical narrative of depression is by far Andrew Solomon's, while The Catcher in the Rye is itself certainly highly interior — her point that women's narratives minimize exteriorality is interesting.