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The Long Shadow of Sylvia Plath

2011 December 1
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It seems fitting that I write this entry as I sit under a blanket, while out the window next to me it rains under a dark gray sky. That sky, the rain and dampness, practically embodies melancholy, or at the very least, contemplation. Some of us actually luxuriate in this mind space; we don’t brush away the doleful, we revel in it. We might recognize, however, that there is a fine line between downbeat contemplation and full blown depression.

I’m thinking about these things because I just finished a contemporary YA novel centered around Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky is written in diary form by 15-year-old Keek who’s dealing with a lot of hardship, including her parents splitting up, boyfriend pressure, and a bad case of the chicken pox. Reading The Bell Jar is a transformative experience for her, serving as a compass as she contemplates her own life and personal challenges.

For more than 40 years, readers have been captivated by The Bell Jar. What is it about that book, and Plath herself, that continues to profoundly affect people, especially young women? When I asked 17-year-old Corinne why she loved the book, she said she could relate to Esther’s relationships with both men and women. She further expressed that Plath “can explain her emotions so clearly. She makes her emotions/depression have meaning.”

The Bell Jar is a compulsively readable account of a young woman who moves to New York to take a prestigious internship at a well-known women’s magazine. She goes on dates, goes to parties, and tries to do the best work she can while on the job. The novel is so much more than that though. The text is alive. It undulates and crackles just under the surface with emotion, anger, and questioning. I know when I was 19 (when I first read The Bell Jar) it was potent stuff. I understood that this book said some important things–about women, about society, about sense of self–without ever directly saying any of it. It’s not just the novel that we’re so affected by, it’s that coupled with Sylvia herself. Her amazing, tragic story. Her life, her loves, her poetry. She was fiercely intelligent, hardworking and passionate. Beginning at a young age, she wrote massive amounts of stories and poetry. By the time she was 9, she was a published author and she’d lost her father to complications from diabetes. Everything in her life was punctuated by her own mental illness including severe depression, and sometimes manic behavior.

Even though the setting can be considered historical, The Bell Jar contains so much that is still relevant and real for women in today’s world. Another YA work that invokes Sylvia Plath and her novel is the 2008 Printz honor book Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill. This arresting book offers a unique biographical account of Sylvia’s life written in verse, all punctuated by the factual items that inspired each poem. Aside from those few books that actually use Plath and The Bell Jar as a jumping off point, you get sense that there are many other YA books today that are influenced by her, and work to illustrate the same kind of questioning and struggles. Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson come to mind. It’s as if Plath was an originator of sorts, elegantly representing and embodying the deep emotions felt during a young person’s life. Perhaps that is why Sylvia, her novel, and her poetry continue to endure and inspire.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM&w=420&h=315]

– Amy Pelman, currently reading Saving June by Hannah Harrington

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