Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Bell Jar


The Bell Jar is a deeply disturbing, beautiful, autobiographical novel of Sylivia Plath’s nervous breakdown. She handles the difficult subject of depression with startling objectivity. It is difficult it is to write about depression well- it can easily become either melodramatic and self- indulgent or profoundly boring. When one is truly depressed, one feels numb and empty and it is difficult to get beyond that numbness to write about the specifics. This story is about a woman who has all the possibilities of life open to her and cannot choose between any of them.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was an amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was a pack of lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion and beyond and above these figs were many more figs that I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which one of the figs to choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”


I think the difficulty of choosing is something people deal with all their lives, but it certainly comes to a head in the early and mid twenties, when one comes to crossroads after crossroads; choosing a profession, choosing a partner, deciding where to live and how to spend your life. It can easily become overwhelming.

I remember having this exact feeling- though I was never able to name it as intelligently as Plath- when trying to choose a college. I was interested in art, had always had an aptitude for it and it seemed the natural course to follow in college.

My parents took me to an open house at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. We went on a tour of the campus and there were all sorts of hip people with dyed black hair and Buddy Holly glasses making prints and paintings and sculptures. The more tour guide talked, the more panicked I felt. I had no idea how to pay for any of this, or what I would do after graduating. I wasn’t as talented as any of the people there- and this wasn’t even the big leagues like New York City. All I wanted was to get out of there.

As we got back in the car, my parents asked me what I thought- I could tell they were impressed with the place and all the cool people and that they though I would like it there. And then I started to cry. I had no idea why but all I could do was bawl. I just lay in the back seat and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed the whole way home.

Eight years later, I feel a similar prick of panic when I think of settling down in one place (which maybe why Eric and I are still moving from place to place and fig to fig). My only consolation is that I am able to imagine, quite clearly, what our life will look and feel like, how it will be quiet and thoughtful, filled with adventure, imagination, exploration and each other. I have a deep faith that one fig is filled with the seeds of another fig- each choice leading you along a branch that forks off into different directions and presents you with new ideas, places and adventures.

1 comment:

amy said...

I am very touched by this post--very timely for me. My first note is to read this book. I saw the movie with Gwyneth Paltro. Being about 10 years older than you, I can say that making life decisions doesn't get any easier with time. I think it gets harder as each year passes, but you do gain more confidence that life/God/intuition will take care of you if you remain open and positive. I feel just like Plath with all those figs in front of me. It can be a great feeling to know you have so many wonderful choices as long as you can prevent getting bogged down by the selection. I feel my strategy thus far hasn't been too successful as I seem to hop from branch to branch taking a small bite out of each fig.

I also appreciate your honesty in sharing the story of choosing your college.

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