Have a Good Time

April 19, 2010

A reading note on The Bell Jar

Filed under: poetry — by Daniel @ 9:12 am
Tags: , , ,

(Plath posing with typewriter by “the wild grasses”…of Yorkshire.)

I’m reading The Bell Jar now for the first time.  There’s a brilliant passage describing required science courses in college, wherein I’m convinced botany is a metonym for the age of colonialism (“I never answered one test question wrong the whole year, and for a while I toyed with the idea of being a botanist and studying the wild grasses in Africa or the South American rain forests, because you can win big grants to study offbeat things like that in queer areas much more easily than winning grants to study art in Italy or English in England; there’s not so much competition”), and physics a metonym for atomic warfare (“The day I went into physics class it was death….[B]y the end of the semester most of the other girls had failed and I had a straight A.”)

Esther makes a bargain with the (male) faculty to avoid chemistry (the combination of physics and biology–right?) and take an English class instead, on the condition that Esther sits through the chemistry lectures.  Mr. Manzi gives Esther a “sweet little appreciative smile:”  she has convinced him that she takes notes “not for exam results like the other girls, but because his presentation fascinated me so much I couldn’t help it.”  This faked orgasm allows Esther to be an English major (the “[studying] English in England” to which botany was an alternative).  The point I’d like to explore further is this: the lying compromise with patriarchy that enables art is situated between the unfortunate unavailability of colonialism and the painful Cold War guilt of surviving nuclear war.



  1. you’ve inspired me to revisit the bell jar, an important novel from my adolescence. as a 17-year old, i think i missed quite a few of these nuances, focusing instead on the fact that i’d found (finally) a female holden caulfield of sorts.

    also: once you’ve finished the novel, pick up johnny panic & the bible of dreams (if you haven’t already) — plath’s prose may or may not overshadow her verse.

    Comment by carlee — April 21, 2010 @ 1:30 pm |Reply

  2. Thanks for the tip; I’ll check it out…but I’m inclined to doubt that comparison of P’s prose vs. verse. Did you hear this? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/15/british-library-hughes-plath-romance

    Comment by Daniel — April 21, 2010 @ 3:34 pm |Reply

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