This week marked the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. As one of Plath’s most famous works and her only novel, the book has been read and beloved by millions of people all over the world. When I was a teenager, it touched me more than almost any other book, feeding me the compassion and empathy from another voice that I had been so hungry for. For this reason, I would up getting a Bell Jar tattoo on my ribcage as an adult. Normally, I think explaining the stories behind my tattoos feels self-indulgent (and usually my explanations are not very interesting), but today, I have Plath on the mind and feel like sharing why.
I still remember reading it for the first time when I was 16 or so after an ex-boyfriend, one who cared very much about my well-being, saw just how much I needed it. As I’ve mentioned before, I have not always been right in the head. Being frightened, depressed and lonely is a dangerous combination that is already difficult to solve individually but must be addressed as a whole, making it very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. But having a friend who relates — even a dead one with whom you’ve never actually spoken — can be very, very helpful.
The plot, for those of you who don’t know (but should as soon as you find the time!), revolves around a young woman named Esther Greenwood who goes to New York City for an internship at a prominent magazine’s office. She’s not impressed by the big city, and finds herself bored, often jealous of the freedom she sees men having. Esther becomes increasingly depressed over time, eventually attempting suicide several times and being hospitalized.
As I sped through the pages, I sometimes felt like I was reading a (much more artful) interpretation of my own thoughts and feelings. It was as though Esther Greenwood — who was semi-based on Plath — and I were long lost friends, or cousins like Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson (only we would not both be played by Sheryl Lee). I had long loved Plath’s poetry but until then, I had never found a female protagonist I truly identified with. I always felt like the other characters were so much more triumphant and brave and flawed only in ways that didn’t really count; with Esther, I could understand how it felt to be drowning, even when succeeding, whilst everyone is telling that you are “supposed to be having the time of my life.”
And when it came to mental health, I understood the feeling of wanting to be better for other people, all of whom believe you can choose to be better, as Esther’s mother does throughout the novel, and how it feels to suffocate under the blanket of others’ desperation and care. I think millions of young women know exactly how that feels, though, which is why it was so significant and necessary that Plath published this when she did. Women needed to not feel so alone; we needed to feel related to, even and especially in our darkest moments. And that pushing past that can be possible, regardless of whether or not it’s done imperfectly.
So when I was older, I went through a particularly life-changing event that I was so should would be the one to finally break me. But one evening, while very drunk and very sad, I pulled out my old friend Esther and started reading once again. Eventually, I got to my favorite quote, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” I read it over and over and over, trying to remember who I had been before I had sunk into this sad, lonely personhood I had resigned myself to, and decided I couldn’t let it destroy me. It wasn’t an overnight change, but after several months, I finally was able to feel like a person — a whole person, that is — and as sappy as this sounds, I think repeating Plath’s words in my head at least somewhat contributed to that. Not too long after, I decided to get them tattooed on my ribs.
I knew I wouldn’t have forgotten them somehow if I didn’t get the tattoo; it was that I wanted to be reminded to push forward even when my own brain refused to think of that as an option. This specific quote is one of the most popular ones by Plath to be tattooed for a reason. But it is almost always an option, to keep going. And though Plath died a terrible, heartbreaking death, she wrote in a way that was tragic, beautiful and able to help millions of other human beings feel less lonely, and that, in all of its various incarnations, is worth celebrating no matter what.
Pictures: Photos by Mavis and myself, obvs.