There is something magnetising about the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar:
‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
The electrifying quality of the sweltering summer heat in the cramped and cosmopolitan city is perfectly captured through the morbid inclusion of the sizzling bodies of the Rosenberg suspects. (The Rosenbergs were an American married couple who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to share the secrets of the atomic bomb with the Russian government during the height of the Cold War).
This is what has always drawn me back to Plath’s book, a slim volume which details the breakdown of protagonist Esther Greenwood, a young, precocious and unwaveringly ambitious girl from New England, whose summer in New York City is the catalyst for her eventual mental collapse and institutionalisation. The Bell Jar, alongside J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, is cited as among the quintessential novels of the twentieth century to aptly capture the angst and alienation of 1950s America for the adolescent introvert.
Many associate Plath’s book with the teen angst-ridden female high-schooler, given that the novel centres on the pitfalls of the promising protagonist and her inability to subscribe to the gendered narratives and expectations of her generation, driven instead by a desire to be become an independent and accomplished self-made writer.
Truth be told,I have read the novel every summer for seven years, not only as a reminder of my own descent into depression during my estranged periods, but as a symbol of my success in defeating the precarious ‘bell jar’ that hangs low above Esther throughout her travels in the Big Apple. In the novel, the bell jar is a symbol of the looming depression that haunts the heroine – a blurring field that distorts reality from Esther’s experience of it – and acts as a daily reminder of her introspection and self-awareness from her peers. I, along with many of my queer peers, have experienced the greying disassociation wrought by the sly and subliminal hold that depression can reap.
It is with this in mind that I choose to reacquaint myself every summer with The Bell Jar, re-experiencing the brief and fleeting moments that signalled my own self-destructive desire to be immersed in the cynical and sour world of the book’s heroine, as she watches neighbours push their prams and pretensions around their bourgeois world while she only wants to write.
Rereading the novel is easy; it is a familiar and ordinary process. Indeed, for me it is an unequivocal summertime experience. To swelter through the suburban heat and obligations of writing and romantic rejections and retail without Plath’s novel is unfathomable.
But this summer, I chose to alter this rereading ritual by accompanying The Bell Jar with Elizabeth Winder’s 2013 book Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. Winder’s is only one of several recent retellings of the true story of Plath and writing of The Bell Jar.
Preceding my reading of The Bell Jar with this rather creative retelling of Sylvia’s stint in the city during the summer of 1953 was a slightly masochistic undertaking. The novel has acted as a touchstone for my own experiences under the bell jar of queer adolescence. I am hesitant in allowing this retelling of the real experiences Sylvia Plath had whilst interning in New York City to affect my personal, veiled conception of the book and its impact on me.
Like many queer folk, my teen years were punctuated by isolation, self-doubt, and loneliness. It was during these years that I gravitated towards the fictional tales of teens who experienced similar alienation, characters I was able to align my own depression with. My identification with Plath and her protagonist is one rooted in my sexuality, the perceived social, cultural, and familial backlash of being gay, and the looming prospect of coming out.
Given that I had to disavow my queerness for the duration of my adolescence – thanks to my all-boys Catholic boarding school commune – I made academia, reading and introspection my solace. Like Esther, I delighted in the pleasures that ruminative scrupulous self-analysis brought and I nourished myself – somewhat superciliously – on the knowledge that I would always be more self-aware of my emotional and erotic depth than most of my peers during school. (They were probably too busy scrolling through bad porn on their now-antiquated camera phones.)
It was probably pretentious, but since I didn’t have much else to occupy my mind – besides my blooming queer sexual urges – the small pleasures of reading The Bell Jar alone in the library may excuse my vanity.
School would then end and the summer holidays would breeze on by. I would be left with my thoughts, my books, and my idle hands. With this freedom, I would craft my summer around the projects of reading and writing and making journal entries like those Esther herself fashioned. It was the pleasure of the poetic form; the leather bound moleskins, and the comfort of introspection that I found in the form of a similarly self-critical protagonist in The Bell Jar.
Like the oppressive New York summer heat, I can lay the metaphors thick about Sylvia’s seminal novel of adolescent alienation and its symbolism for me every summer. Although I have not migrated far from the subject, only consulting Winder’s revised account of that through Pain, Parties, Work, maybe reading more about the cultural climate Plath was forced to endure and that which ultimately provided the inspiration for her ‘potboiler’ a decade later, will break the cycle.
Seven years later it is perhaps necessary that I break away from this ritualistic rereading of a well-thumbed book from another time and place and experiment with something else. (And, of course, get around to reading the dozen other books that I’ve bought and set aside throughout this year. Donna Tartt, anyone?)