On the anniversary of The Bell Jar, first published January 14 of 1963, a reader reflects on the profound impact the book had on her life.
The thing about the best books—the books that can change your life— is that they can never satiate your thirst for feelings completely, because you just want more of it. You already know the quotes by heart but you still want to hear them in your head over and over again. And the best part is, once you finish these books, you’re never the same person. But these books only come around once in a long while.
And when the The Bell Jar came around for me, it was life-changing.
A lot of people I know have negatively criticized Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but I absolutely loved it. The moment I started reading the book, I realized I could relate to Esther Greenwood, the main character of the book, so much that I didn’t know whether to take in all the feels and try not to drop a tear or two, or just ignore them. Plath did not individually describe many characters as to their personality, but I felt like I knew them all intimately. It was like I could see through each of them, even though they were not always transparent. Moreover, I felt like I could hear Plath telling her own story to me; it felt intimate. If I look back to when I read the book and whatever life gave me from then on, I can surely say that this is the book that changed me.
In my short life of 17 years, I got my hands on the book only last year and how I wish I could have read it earlier. All my life, I’ve lived in the city of Dhaka and it has always felt as unfathomable to me as New York City felt to Esther. So many people, yet, so rigorously empty.
The book really spoke to me because of my own personal experiences with depression. In the country I live in, mental health is considered unimportant. If you say you’re depressed, they will say that’s just a new concept you came to terms with. If you say you need to talk to someone because you’re sad and you need help, you’re advised to sleep it away. You’re told it’s just a temporary phase or an excuse to avoid studying.
But this book made me realize that you can’t ever demean or diminish depression. It is an expansive experience and is incomparable to anything else you ever felt. Through Esther, Plath described the feelings, confusions and the bleak truths of a girl’s life perfectly over 30 years ago and what’s more astonishing is that girls today, who suffer from depression, still face the stigma of the illness.
It took time for me to realize that this book was actually changing me, because the changes were minor. I felt empty for a long time and I didn’t believe a simple book could satiate this emptiness. There were several times when I thought of ending my life. There were times when I couldn’t differentiate between reality and illusions. Ultimately, I just wasn’t pleased with myself—I thought I wasn’t normal. I was terrified of life, and human beings, and men, and myself. It’s only after learning about Esther that I realized I wasn’t alone.
The book helped me find my own method of coping with life. I was rebelliously obstinate when it came to justifying my existence and there was nothing that could “fix” me. But Esther made me learn that I was more fortunate than she was, as I had the time to come to terms with myself. Life is full of infinite dissatisfactions, betrayals and absurd choices. But it’s different for everyone. Someone’s “practicality” is another’s “absurdity.” I realized I will never be “fixed.” There was no reason to fix who I was. I just had to learn not to examine myself through other people’s expectations.
And it was okay.
No one ever told Esther it was okay. Yet, she has been letting ordinary 17 year olds like myself know that it is OK, for about half a century. She made me realize that society will always keep us under bell jars. It will only force us to suckle on its “norms” unless and until we embrace our own truths. To be really honest, I will never be “normal”. But as long as I have the strength to wake up every day and realize my own sense of worth, life will go on.
And for as long as I live, I will keep on listening to the old brag of my heart: “I am, I am, I am.”
Mashiat Lamisa is often seen frowning at the sight of people who dislike tomatoes and poetry. She is a student and on most days, she can be seen sipping on black coffee, trying to keep her eyes open in the classroom. She tries to be a writer and believes that the sky is the limit and that wooden pencils can change lives. You can follow her on Twitter @MashiatLamisa.