I came of age in the 1970s. I never questioned whether I would have a career or children. I always knew that I could and would have both. I've always said that, much as I love history and historical fiction, I would have gone crazy had I actually been born earlier than when I was born.
Now, after reading Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, I'm starting to see things a little less black and white. The Bell Jar was published in January 1963, less than a month before Plath committed suicide, and the novel is a fictionalized account of her life ten years earlier, when she was in college, worked as a summer editor at Mademoiselle magazine, and ended up in a hospital where she received electroshock treatments and psychotherapy after several suicide attempts.
What makes me question my long-held truths after reading this sad book is that Plath's mental illness was not a result of her being out of step with her time and place. She was mentally ill, despite her manifold gifts as a writer. The treatment she received relieved the pressure of the bell jar, for a time, but in reading this book, I felt that her final act was inevitable. That made me sad, of course, but also it made me realize that Plath would have suffered from mental illness even if she hadn't been reared in a world where not many women successfully did "have it all." In a way, her indecision about which path she wanted her life to take was a manifestation of her mental state not necessarily a condemnation of the world in which she lived. I'm not defending the world that Betty Frieden railed against in The Feminine Mystique--it needed to be changed--but Plath wasn't really a victim of that world as much as she was a chronicler of it.
Reading The Bell Jar made me wonder if I really would have been "crazy" had I lived in a different time. Much of what I believe is a result of the world in which I grew up. Had I lived in a different time, nurture would have been different, but not nature. Maybe that's what I'm getting to--Plath's nature (her inherent mental instability) became the defining feature of her life, overwhelming her incredible poetic talent and the nurturing home she tried so hard to disconnect herself from.
Speaking of her poetic talent, I found The Bell Jar to be okay--I read it primarily because of its place in American literature. There's an immaturity in the voice that I found irritating. Much as I admire Plath as a poet, I did not like or even really sympathize with Esther Greenwood, her 1st person narrator in The Bell Jar. I liked the metaphor of the bell jar, but overall I found her prose riddled with cliches and more drab than not.
I'm glad I read it--it was an interesting experience--and I'm ready to move on.
Yeah, The Bell Jar is the fifth book read in 2014 from my TBR Pile Challenge, and my "Author who is New to Me" category in the Back to the Classics Challenge.