I Was Esther Greenwood

PLATH _ The Bell Jar

The last lines I marked in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.

I am, I am, I am.

* * *

On February, I spent an entire day with The Bell Jar, the book that my gut had (for years and years) warned me away from. [Too close to home, after all, this story of a girl so full of promise—one who, as the novel opens, is at the cusp of something materially impressive. Bah.] And on that day I was camped out at a coffee shop, armed with my usual pile of books—that day I reached for the Plath because it was the Plath that called—the trepidation was on a keener intensity. [A snapshot from those February days: Me stumbling out of our office building, right at the wane of the afternoon, to sit on an ant-ridden curb—and just to breathe.]

I was afraid of this book, of what it could trigger. All throughout my reading, I’d do spot-checks on myself, not unlike gauging an internal, emotional temperature: Is this triggering old beasts in me? Do I feel like throwing myself out the window of my thirty-fourth-floor apartment? Or, more typically, do I want to crawl into bed immediately and not crawl out for weeks? That is: I wondered if this was making me sad, and if that sadness was the pitch-black kind—the kind from which the crumbling of my nineteenth year began, the kind that struck me in 2010 and had me planning a vengeance that involved other people’s guilt at my untimely but not unprovoked demise, the kind that has me running from my desk gasping for breath.

Yes, I had (still have, sometimes) all that, but no, this book didn’t push. Thank fucking goodness.

I wrote “Yes, Miss Greenwood!” beside the passage: “But I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, would descend again?” Because I know that’s precisely the hand I’ve been dealt by good ol’ evolution and genetics. This pitch-black beast lies in wait; I carry it with me. The kind of shit I have can’t be cured—it just retreats once in a while, and in the in-between I build myself up so the damage lessens when it returns. It’ll come back—it has, I could chart this; I don’t know why or how or when—but it’ll rear its ugly head, and here’s a spike in the ever-present doldrums—you poor girl certified to carry a sadness all the fucking time—and now, here’s the mad rush of despair, brace yourself against the hopelessness and its handmaid guilt; it comes back.

I know myself susceptible, and I am as certain that good books sneak into the parts of me I can’t armor as sturdily. And so, for the longest time after reading Plath, all I could say about the experience was that I survived it. That no crippling, calcifying blackness stole over me—and that this would count among my greatest bibliophilic achievements. That, plainly speaking, The Bell Jar didn’t depress me, didn’t send me into a tailspin of existential angst-and-dread—so, fuck, yeah, Sasha, here’s a cookie!­

I was scared of what The Bell Jar could do. After all, right up there with love and science and goodness and beauty is my unflagging, deep, and abiding faith in books, my respect for their influence and for their power. What the good ones evoke in me runs the gamut, the simplest being the superficial (but no less effective) manipulations—say, like an well-crafted line that reminds you of a misstep in loving, or a scene that rings too true for comfort. And then there are books like A Lover’s Discourse and Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre, which you keep for as long as your bedside table stands; there are books that come at the right moments, like Darkness Visible, or even books that you never knew came at a perfect time, like Revolutionary Road or The Post-Birthday World; there are books that seemingly set the course of your life unbeknownst to you, books that can be unassuming like The Duchess or the heavyweights like good ol’ Harry Potter, books that you buy as a twelve-year-old only for them to resonate years and years later, like an eventual professor’s short story collection. There are books you seize to ward off an ache: Say, The Noontime Demon or The Emperor of Maladies—or, like in the summer of your seventeenth year, a book your mother hands you because she recognized a pain within you before you did, like The Beast.

Books are deceptively tidily-packaged keystones of great power—and, if you’re lucky (as I consider myself to be), years of reading will arm you with presentiments about what a protracted brush against that power might do [to] you. And I had that hunch with The Bell Jar. I’ve known everything there was to know about the novel before I read it, and every little thing was bad news for someone like me. Call it readerly superstition, call it a far-too-strong awareness of my own psychological  climate: I stayed away from Plath’s novel because it was about me.

And it was, in a way. I was Esther Greenwood. This novel, this was me at nineteen—some of it was me at twenty-one, then at twenty-three. But this was me, bottom-line, this was about me—every little bit of it. Esther going, “After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.” Esther’s beautiful parenthetical—haven’t I realized that I tend to say more in parentheses?—“(I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullaballoo.)” Esther gritting her teeth against slow erosions within her, knowing anything could set her off into tears, which were perpetually “brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.

Once I closed the book, I went back to the little gauge in my soul. There was the usual hum that runs through you after a good and/or timely book. But beyond that: I felt strange—both superior and self-pitying; I looked at all the teenagers that swarmed that coffee shop, all those souls that would never ever need to be scared of a book like The Bell Jar—all for naught or otherwise.

And then I wondered if it would have struck its greatest, most soul-crushing blow—the blow of a book that transcends and matters—if I had read when I, too, was nineteen. When I was stuck in that bell jar for the first, decisive time (that is: knowing full well what was happening to me, but unable to do something about it), “blank and stopped as a dead baby”—when I was a girl waking to a world that had suddenly morphed into a bad dream? It’s all speculation at this point: What if this was more than just a good, well-timed read? What if this ought to have been one of those books that staggered me, a book that I’d keep always-near—so that whenever my arms unfurl, a palm would strike its cover?

That is: I know, after everything, that I need not have feared The Bell Jar. Oddly, it made me feel better. Not precisely catharsis, not exactly schadenfreude. There was an easing in me that was not unlike hope. Definitely like hope. And I had to wonder what could have happened if I had felt wisp of hope at nineteen, if I had read this at nineteen, if I realized I was Esther Greenwood then and if I use that knowledge to shake loose the beast.

Again, all speculation, so approximating moot.

[Ah, hope. I cannot quite explain the why nor the how.]

There’s the proverbial silver lining to having this kind of recurring darkness—[isn’t it cruel that dysthymia is such a beautiful word?] It comes back, sure, it always does—the bell jar descends around you; the pitch-black sadness steals over you and calcifies you, with only the occasional tremor reaching outward to remind you that somewhere inside all that morass, you’re still fighting; you’ll want to stay in bed for weeks on end, struggling against both the resignation and the guilt over that resignation. It comes back, not quite like clockwork, but often enough—embedded in you deep enough—for you to know that it will return when it gets the chance.

It comes back, because that’s how it is inside you. But for every time it came back, Sasha, it went away again. You were struggling, sometimes angrily, through every second—and pointedly ignoring the blessed relief you feel when you’re not doing so—and eventually, you rediscovered the hope numbed to embers inside you. And you goddamned fanned that hope because it’s shitty as hell not to, and that hope swelled and then it settle and made itself whole again; and it goddamned broke the bell jar (or, at least, batted it away)—it’s the kind of little-engine-that-could hope that makes you stand back from that ledge, that fucking wrenches you away from that filthy sidewalk and damn, girl, brush those ants off your pants.

Listen to the brag of your old heart, love: I am, it says—I am, I am, I am.

9 thoughts on “I Was Esther Greenwood

  1. Thank you, this is so beautifully written. And for what it’s worth, I did read it in the middle of it all (at 18), and it was a bad scene, and I’ve been scared of it ever since. You almost make me want to reread it.

    1. Thank you. And, I don’t know, maybe it stops being the scary thing it’s always been when you reread it? Then again, I understand how books like these can feel like you’re navigating through a landmine.

  2. Oh, I am currently reading Revolutionary Road and it is perfectly resonating my situation: facing the hopeless emptiness in my little cubicle. Anyway, I had a sort of reevaluation when I read The Bell Jar. I also felt like Esther Greenwood. There’s a piece of her that we all share.

    1. Oh god, I’ve read Revolutionary Road twice and, tellingly, I just can’t not love it. The sadness, the despair, the utter hopelessness. It’s just so beautiful. One of the books I told myself I ought to read soon is his A Good School, so I’m bracing myself.

    1. Thank you, that means a lot to me. There’s always a danger of sharing this much about yourself, even if it was done so under the guise of “But I’m talking about books.”


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