Suicidal Thoughts



‘There’s two acts of creation at work in the novel: the writer’s, and the reader’s.’

– Rodney Hall.

Some books, you read them and they go right through you like a glass of water. Other books seem to take up residence and become a part of who you are, like marrow, or muscle fibre.

I recently read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for the second time.

I found myself reading her again after a confluence of events: I had intended to pick up The Bell Jar again after seeing something that made a profound impact on me earlier in the year. The way it transpired seemed as if it was mapped out by something Esther Greenwood observes when she goes skiing.

The second thing was when a friend of mine read her last published collection, Ariel, and couldn’t make sense of it, so he passed it on. And I got into an argument with some fool who came into my business and said that she thought Plath was a bad poet.

Most of the poetry I’d been reading this year was sonnets, all of which are governed by a pretty rigorous structure. Their resonances, created through a rigorous, obvious rhyme and meter, are easily observed and hold you in step, like you’re listening to a rock song.

Obviously, as a modern poet, Sylvia’s structures are an entirely different thing. The poem spreads over you like a cloud and you are acted upon by its electricity. Rhymes are thrown up in abstruse places for resonance, rather than drive.

The place Sylvia really excels is in her imagery. Poetics are the business of bringing together two things that, as they intersect, bring a third thing into being, not unlike the light emitted from between the two poles of an electric lightbulb.

A poet that you remember builds their own unique symbolic lexicon and the miracle that impresses them upon you, into your memory and in fact the lenses of your own perception, is that it’s not a language you have to learn; it is already within you.

It is a language you recognise. The foreign aspect of the poems is their structure. That is the part that is Plath’s: working with the structure is what gives the sensation of entering her mind.

In that way, I remember passages of The Bell Jar. And I think I’m building an understanding out of her oeuvre every day; I’ll be daydreaming and suddenly round a corner and find a part of something she wrote crouching there, lying in wait for me.


The Bell Jar wasn’t a riveting read for its entirety, but I’ve continued to think about it over the weeks since I finished it. One of the scenes, or some of its lines will blossom in my imagination and begin revolving in the darkness of my mind like a strange flower.

From the little I know about Sylvia Plath, she was dead at thirty. She killed herself by asphyxiation in the gas oven at home after her husband left her and their two little children. By that time, she’d published a single volume of poetry, Colossus, and The Bell Jar under a pseudonym. Ariel was published posthumously.

The Bell Jar is a thinly-veiled autobiography about the year she goes crazy, attempts suicide, and ends up in an institution. The first half transpires in New York, while her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, works as a cadet at a fashion magazine. Life is a parade of parties constituted of a tissue of pointlessness.

The whole thing is rendered as quite strange, as presented through Greenwood’s lens of perception. She is disappointed by a succession of men, all of whom try to harm her, to a greater or lesser extent, after their own fashion.

The harm they visit on her is doubled by the fact that she lives in a fake world, full of people that work as the play actors of ersatz emotions.

The second half details her suicide attempts and the time she spends in institutions. The entire book is characterised by a brutal courage, which is at odds with its lightness of touch. Her irony is as thin as the shades of a watercolour, and you have to stand somewhat removed to properly catch her drift.

I suspect her gravity as a poet is represented by the fact some of the phrases and situations are still rising through my mind weeks later, like the sound of a wrecked ship’s bell rising through the waves, ringing from the bottom of the ocean.

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