Monday, February 02, 2015

The Bell Jar: I Feel Nothing

The Bell Jar is one of those books that everyone tells you you need to read: "You must read The Bell Jar!" "What do you mean you've never read The Bell Jar?" "How could you not have read The Bell Jar?!"

So I read The Bell Jar. And it did nothing for me. 

In case you're like me and had only heard of The Bell Jar from references in pop culture, it's the story of Esther, a discontented college-aged woman in the 1950s. Esther's got this cushy internship at a women's magazine, but she thinks it's bullshit. She has these friend she goes out with, but she thinks they're shallow. She wants to get laid (well, actually, she decides that getting laid is something she wants to do), but has no idea how to go about it. And, finally, she hasn't gotten into the program of her choice in college.

Basically, she might as well be a character in any movie about twentysomethings ever made, except with fewer yucks and more ptomaine poisoning.

Anyways, she decides she needs to commit suicide with the same dreary determination as she decides that she needs to get laid.

After a few failed attempts (I can't decide if they were supposed to be funny or tragic or just lame), she almost manages. Unfortunately for all of us someone finds her before she's completely dead and the book doesn't end there.

This is where we get into Phase 2 of The Bell Jar where she spends some time in an asylum where she gets electroshock therapy. She meets more random people. I care for everyone even less than previously. No one seems to get better or grow as a character. I feel incredibly numb and start to wonder if I'm not suffering from depression myself. Then someone dies. And then I really hope that all the characters eventually die so that the book will end.

But then Esther starts feeling better -- or the doctors say she's feeling better -- and then the book ends. 

And then I think about how much I really do not care whether or not Esther is going to be OK.

That space invader is more compelling.
I know Esther is supposed to be depressed, but I didn't get "depressed" from her. I got "discontented". I got "trapped". I got "unhappy". But I didn't get "depressed". Esther seems to just hate her life rather than hating living. There is no overwhelming feeling of despair. And while many a webcomic shared on FB and Twitter has explained that depression is more about feeling nothing than feeling sad, I did not get a feeling of nothingness from Esther. I just felt like Esther just doesn't like what she's doing and is suffering from the typical twentysomething malaise compounded by the fact that as a woman in the 1950s she has limited choices. I get that and I'm OK with that, but it really made the suicide attempts feel like melodrama (if you've ever had a friend who wrote suicide notes on a weekly basis, you know what I mean).

She's basically unhappy.

It would have been more poignant if they had institutionalized her for being unhappy. But as it stands, they institutionalized her for trying to kill herself, which is not unreasonable.

I think my biggest obstacle to feeling anything about The Bell Jar was that I really didn't care about Esther. Esther wasn't developed enough as a character for me to care about her at all. She was like my coworker's niece's next door neighbour's cousin who lost an internship and didn't get into college and then ended up in the hospital for a psych evaluation. That's really sad, and I'm really sorry for her, but I've gotta go grab some lunch, so we'll talk later.

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