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A Bell Jar That No Longer Rings

(c) Ana Navarro Bullo

On February 11th, the world’s literary community commemorates fifty-nine years since one of the finest female poets decided to take her life at the age of thirty from a gray and poorly heated apartment of Camden Town in the heart of London. Unlike other movements I have come across, confessional poetry –i.e. a 20th-century poetic style where the poet reflects very intimate and detailed extracts of their personal life– in the form of Plath’s pieces sparked all my attention from the outset. Precisely this attention I invite you to awaken in yourself throughout my (brief) review of her life, work and one particular passage many of us ideally should reflect upon more often. Personally, in leafing through her pages, her sincere words inspired in me an introspective curiosity I shall recall from time to time. Perhaps this can lead you as well to realize that it can never be too late to look inside oneself.

Sylvia Plath, a United States-based poet whose life can be read throughout her extensive written artwork and personal diaries, embarked on the world of literature at the young age of eight and left it with a mark of prose and written grief that will never fade. Ever since she wholeheartedly pursued success and recognition for her creations. Sylvia mirrored her inner despair, rage and often plain desire to cease living mainly through her poems but also with her only novel, The Bell Jar. Despite her fear of it becoming a failure in her well-fed reputation as a poet, Sylvia mirrored herself in the main character and turned her lines into an honest abstraction of the self. Like most of her work, the awareness and inescapable obsession she had with death became a central pillar of the story. In fact, in one of her journal entries, Sylvia confessed how two ‘electric currents’ run her life: the “joyous positive and [the] despairing negative – whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” Like this, her life pieces –which depict a 20th-century ambitious writer in an endless fight with herself, as well as a woman whose life grew in grief due to her husband’s dishonesty– fascinated and intrigued me even more.

In fact, I have been recently turning the pages of The Bell Jar and found a passage that tremendously awakened in me an unprecedented sense of understanding towards Esther, the main character and alter-ego of the author. In essence, the passage presents a metaphor where Esther sees herself dominated by her unreasoned inaction towards making central life choices. This existential crisis is portrayed with a green fig tree whose branches let hang those choices she clearly envisions but never gets to make. Among them, a happy family, a brilliant professor, an amazing editor and many more figs of alternative selves she seems unable to realize. In such a way, the character starves in front of all of those at-first-sight fresh figs she craves to eat, but as she realizes the one choice would mean the loss of everything else, she lets them fall at her feet now black and irreversibly ripe.

The passage serves as an epiphany of those life stages where indecision seems to shadow the greatness of trusting oneself in making choices. By being often far from rational, all those choices that one never gets to make stick, like tree sap, to our most recurrent thoughts and obscure the beauty brought by the choices we actually made. The never chosen paths retract our conscious selves from those paths we actually walk through and turn us absent from the present we are lucky to be in. Such an attitude towards oneself’s decisions progressively scares our intuition and bravery to act in circumstances where rationality is not necessarily important.

And there it goes, the moment where we find ourselves picturing a lush fig tree, with all its fruits rotten in front of our eyes and ourselves indifferently letting time decide what is and what is not supposed to take part in our lives. Plath kindly takes us to that sole instant where we are in control of the course of time, being still in our hands the power to decide the route to be taken by one’s life.

The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath, Harper Perennial Modern Classics


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