The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel gained critical acclaim posthumously. Don’t you think there’s a trend of an exponential increase in valuation of an artist’s masterpiece after his or her death? Michael Jackson sold more records, especially right after his death, than in his entire lifetime.

It was my first time at a Book Club meeting, and the book of discussion was The Bell Jar. While some people think that it is one of the most depressing books they have ever read, I beg to differ. Plath has a fine gift and strong style of describing coming-of-age matters in the 1950s and the protagonist’s spiral into clinical depression. Such that the progression of events seem so matter-of-fact. I enjoyed her colorful metaphors and the fearlessness in describing the character’s warped deepest thoughts and her natural propensity for suicidal tenancies, as if slashing yourself with a razor were as mundane as going to the supermarket. Her words capture every nuance of the broad spectrum of human emotions very precisely that it is possible to be drawn into the character’s spiral into depression, where she elucidates the emotions that were trapped in my heart. This is the epitome of effective storytelling.  Her acute sensitivity to the human psyche is amazing.

Plath had suffered clinical depression for much of her adult life, which made her account of Esther Greenwood’s struggle to escape the reality of the Bell Jar so compelling. Life comes with ups and downs and most regular people get on with life after depressing setbacks. But Greenwood, the story’s protagonist, described visits to the psychiatrist, the side-effects of drugs and the disturbing visions about life as her landscape. That she was trapped in a bell jar, and the only way out of her bad dream was to end it all. She felt that she needed to have answers to all her knots about life, which she failed to resolve.

For instance, the character described her different roles in life such as mother, wife, poet as different and mutually exclusive branches of a fig tree. She wanted to be them all but she felt that if she were a mum, she could not be a poet. The inability to reconcile these different roles left her breathless and tired, darting from from one branch to another to ‘run’ these roles concurrently.  She also had very strong views about virginity, especially for a woman of that era. The protagonist was brought up in a religious family that emphasized chastity, but that had little bearing on her. She felt discriminated and disadvantaged as a virgin and saw the world as divided between virgins and non-virgins, more than other prevalent divides like Protestant vs Catholic, or Republican vs Democrat. Virginity was like ‘a millstone round her neck’ to be gotten rid of. More so, she wanted to even out her non-virgin record with her ex-boyfriend, Buddy, who had already done the deed. It is interesting to see such feminism and defiance to challenge the status quo of that day.

She approaches death in a mechanical way. In the story, Esther attempts various methods of suicide as if it were an experimental procedure, with the successful result of death in mind. It is devoid of  stigma or fear associated with death. The lack of any adverse reaction toward death may seem scary to some, but it intrigues me that what some people fear most is so desired by some others.

The comments from the book club members were intelligent and diverse. Just a note, the audience consisted of mainly expatriates or bibliophiles, because Singaporeans are not known to have a penchant for reading novels (sad stereotype).

Intelligent Discussions with a diverse audience at Charlie’s Paradiso, a bar along Boat Quay.

It was her depression- that extreme and rare sensitivity to her surroundings that made her writing so distinct and great- that led to the author’s suicide at 30. There are studies that show a direct correlation between great intelligence and clinical depression. A highly intelligent person’s worldview is often ‘different’ compared to the average person, and the inability to reconcile their understanding with the mainstream society causes them to retreat into their fortress, and they often cope with this chasm with unhealthy means. Sylvia Plath’s academic life had been adorned with accolades and scholarships, which proved that she was a brilliant literature talent – that came with a price.

Another topic discussed was that many people often do not what direction to take or what to focus on in life, as in the case of Sylvia Plath. Her concurrent roles as mother, wife and poet confused and were conflicting within her. The inability to accept the overlap in multiple roles left her depressed. She wanted to do many things in life, as described by wanting all the branches of the fig tree in her queer vision.  That mental flaw left her in a quandary. One reader shared that the plethora of choices in life left him feeling confused . He had explored through 1000 over courses in UBC but could not settle his heart on one that he really felt like doing, and eventually dropped out of university. One lady even commented that that is the problem with Tinder, a dating app that presents an endless choice of dates in a swipe.

She also could not fit into the stereotype of women in the 1950s. Back then women were expected to be subservient to men and to stay a virgin for marriage. She wondered why the same yardstick for chastity was not applied to men, as the ex-boyfriend in the story had the liberty of sleeping around and getting away with a double life of sin and outward-purity.  In Plath’s real life, her husband, Ted, was known to have had affairs during their marriage. That inequality left her mental state in a quagmire, especially for a strong-minded woman who sought freedom in expressing her sexuality. While she knew she had issues deviant from the norm, back then, depression was stigmatized. It was as if accepting depression was equivalent to admitting defeat and denying it lessened the issue.

Books with a dark and morbid plot do not often find commercial fanfare, with the exception of the pessimistic. Life already has its share of murky waters, and in this practical, busy society, often the self-help and money-making titles end up on the bestsellers lists. Thus a separate one for fiction has to be carved out for a level-playing field. While The Bell Jar may not grow on readers who do not have a first-hand insider’s view of depression, it’s writing style is sure to captivate. Her metaphors are so unique and beautifully-written. For instance, she describes depression as a pair of talons clutching her heart, refusing to let go. What colorful imagery.

One reader even commented that being a psychologist, flipping every page of Sylvia plath’s book made her shudder because she knew something bad was going to happen. She ended up skipping pages to cope with the foreboding suspense. The descriptions were reflective of her clients whose behavior were dangerously suicidal. The suicide of the protagonist’s good friend, Joan, made her see in the flesh what it meant to be truly dead, and she admired her friend for living her dream.

What a pity Sylvia only wrote one book before her death. She had many amazing poems too. Conclusion is, her very glitch gave her the most, and eventually took her away.


A change of heart

Teaching used to be an absolute no-no when I was charting out possible career paths after graduation. Eighteen years incarcerated in a stifling education system left me feeling suffocated. The overemphasis on letter grades and the one-way-to-the-top style left me with an unpleasant aftertaste. Just as I thought that I was done with the education system and anything peripheral to it, one of my friends approached me to help out with teaching English at her newly-minted tuition center. Well, it wouldn’t hurt, considering that at that time I was not yet gainfully employed and that it was my means of livelihood. I have always loved reading, writing and English for that matter, and teaching that at primary school level should not require too much racking of brains. Easy peasy.

So I did as I was paid for. The first lesson seemed fun. Though I was a little concerned at how the kids would take to me and how to manage a group of chatty, hyperactive kids, and how to get their attention to get the class going. It seemed mechanical at first, delivering the lesson and sticking to my agenda within the class duration. Days turned into weeks, and then months. The kids seemed to have taken a liking for me, and communicating with them genuinely warmed my heart and restored my faith in humanity. My personal journey in the education system here has had its ups and downs, and through university I have come across the ugliness of the human nature like politics, for instance, news of the poisoning of a labmate’s experiments to get ahead, ruthless competition and plain ugliness. I do not deny that the way to the top could be fraught with drama of that sort, and when I am encountered with the innocent demeanor of my kids, it feels regrettable that probably, someday, in their journey of growing up, the reality of life would cause that bubbly childhood innocence to fade away in place of a hardened heart immune to the arrows of real life. I try my best, while teaching the syllabus, to drop in little life lessons that may leave them pondering, such as not to compete with your neighbor on who finishes the assignment the fastest, but rather, to focus on your own learning and competing against your own previous performance, to do better. Occasionally, I would ask them what they want to do in the future. Responses vary from, doctors, teachers, coaches, scientists. I believe it’s never too late to think about what you want to do. Of course along the way there could be detours or a change of heart, but self-discovery is a daily thing. I mean, I had just realized that I enjoy teaching. Oddly, I feel more energetic after teaching, and the rapport between me and the kids is tangible.

Michelle Obama once said that it was normal to not know what one wants to do after graduation; even she is asking herself that question at the very moment, what’s next. So her advice was to just take on whatever opportunity life presents to us at the very moment, and to make the best use of it. Thank you, First lady. You may be miles away from where I live but your wisdom has impacted me more than my high school teacher or local politician.

Even as I am embarking on a new role, I am always open to going back to teaching at any capacity. The responsibility of being in a position to inspire and educate people is a noble one, not just in terms of academics, but life values. While we cannot guarantee that the inculcation of values will eliminate the development of ugly and unethical behavior that arises from competition, I’m sure every effort to educate our young ones well will go a long way. I remember that in my schooling years, I had encountered dispassionate and slipshod teachers who very clearly just wanted to get their work over and done with. Their very presence emanated a foreboding and dislike for that particular subject. Education has to come from the heart, and should value-add to the person. I am baffled at how such teachers had gotten their foot through the school gates in the first place.