Calendary Literature – July – The Bell Jar

This is my first July after I’ve finished my master’s degree and for some reason this has caused me to think back on my first July as a university student years ago. The month of July really changed for me once I started at the university and moved away from home and became a so-called adult. Thus far, summer vacations had been a six-week thing, and always a welcome and much needed break from school. I was in between grades so there was no question of school work being done during my vacation. And once I started longing for school again, it was usually a good sign that August was on its way and my vacation was over (in Denmark, the children start school in August).

But that all changed when I started at the university. Suddenly I had these incredibly long summer vacations, more than two months long. While I was studying for my first-year exams I was looking forward to the vacation like crazy, but once it started it made me feel uneasy and restless. Surely I ought to spend the vacation preparing for the next semester? Studying, finishing a paper? But I was exhausted, and I couldn’t find the energy. I distinctly remember sitting, 19 years old, at my desk in front of my computer in my room in the student hall where I was living, while the dust danced in the yellow sunlight and settled on the ugly, brown needle felt on my floor. It was hot, and everything felt so dirty. I remembered those educational movies from when I was a child, where they zoomed in on every-day objects and showed how a myriad of tiny little bugs and bacteria inhabitated, munching on microscopic crumbs and dead skin cells and laying their eggs, and the needle felt, heated by the July sun, seemed like an obvious place for such creatures to nest. Then I thought about the movie The Ice Storm and that scene where Elijah Woods talks about how fascinated he is with the winter storms, about how they provide a shelter from all the impurity, as all the molecules are killed by the freezing temperatures, and I thought that this was what I needed. I needed the cold to clense everything, to create boundaries and solidity; I was slowly disintegrating in the filthy heat. I knew it was ridiculous to think this way, because the weather was really fabulous, and it was summer weather outside. Beach weather, ice cream weather or bicycle-ride-by-the-coast weather. I knew that all my friends were out there somewhere, enjoying themselves. Many miles away, in Eastern Europe, the boyfriend I had then was backpacking with his friends for three weeks, exploring the world.

But I’d made up my mind to spend that summer vacation writing a paper on The Sufferings of Young Werther a 20-page thing that would earn me 15 ECTS. It made sense; I couldn’t make plans to go anywhere exciting anyway, because I was completely broke. And writing the paper would give me a head start for next semester, and it would make me feel like I’d made good use of my vacation. Sitting there, however, I didn’t feel like I was putting my vacation to any use at all. The good weather was little more than a nuisance to me, and I was completely uninspired as far as my paper was concerned. “Escapism as a theme in Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther” was my title, a terribly pretentious, typical freshman-year kind of title, and I thought I’d seen my professor frown ever so slightly when I mentioned that idea to him. Now that frown was haunting me, and I hated the project.The summer turned into a exercise of futility for me, I slept in, waking up sweaty and sticky and with an aching head from sleeping in my over-heated room, stayed up late, ate little and badly because I hated cooking in the communal kitchen of the student hall where my poor cooking skills would be on display for all the other students to see, and I felt useless and unproductive and hopeless and even contemplated dropping out of the university.

I managed to get that paper written that summer, but it took me a few years of studying before I managed to avoid getting that useless feeling in July, and I’ve come to think that summers like that are part of the whole growing-up experience. Once you’re out of your school-girl years where your whole life is neatly structered and planned for you, the summer break can become a strange, diffuse sort of thing that leaves you feeling unproductive and with too much time to think and debate and bring into questions your major life choices. And no one describes this better than Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, I think. Now, I realize that Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood is suffering from a clinical condition, depression, and I am not trying to be all emo and compare my own trivial frustrations over a university paper with what her character goes through in The Bell Jar. But I do think that part of the appeal of Plath’s novel is the fact that she is able to communicate Esther’s growing depression in a way that makes it possible for the reader to relate to what she’s going through even without having Plath’s experience with depression, and the description of Esther’s summer vacation is a fine example of this.

I’d like to quote a passage from this part of the novel. It’s a part that takes place just as Esther, a honours student with a scholarship, has returned from an internship at a prestigious New York fashion magazine to her mother’s house and is expecting to go away to Yale to attend a summer course given by a world-famous author. However, Esther is greeted by her mother with the message that Esther has not made that course, and after being transported back to her mother’s house, she commences the next day a summer holiday of idleness:

“The soprano creak of carriage whels punished my ear. Sun, peeping through th eblinds, filled the bedroom with a suplphuous light. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but I felt one big twitch of exhaustion.
The twin bed next to mine was empty and unmade.
Somebody seemed to be wheeling a baby carriage back and forth under my window.
I slipped out of bed and on to the rug, and quietly, on my hands and knees, crawled over to see who it was. Ours was a small, white clapboard house set in the middle of a small green lawn on the corner of two peaceful suburban streets, but in spite of the little maple trees planted at intervals around our property, anybody passing along the sidewalk could glance up at the second storey window and see just what was going on.
This was brought home to me by our next-door neighbour, a spiteful woman named Mrs Ockenden.
Mrs Ockenden was a retired nurse who had just married her third husband – the other two diedi n curious circumstancs – and she spent an inordinate amount of time peering from behind the starced white curtaints of her windows.
She had called my mother up twice about me – once to report that I had been sitting in fron of the house for an hour uner the streetlight and kissing somebody in a blue Plymouth, and once to say that I had better pull the blinds down in my room, becasue she had seen me half-naked getting ready for bed one night when she happened to be out walking her Scotch terrier.
With great care,  raised my eyes to the level of the window-sill.

A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque protruding stomach, was wheling an old black baby carriage down the street. Two or three small children of various sizes, all pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees, wobbled along in the shadow of her skirts.
A serene, slmost religious smile lit up the woman’s face. Her head tilted happily back, like a sparrow egg perched on a duck egg, she smiled into the sun.
I knew the woman well.
It was Dodo Conway.
Dodo Conway was a Catholic who had gone to Barnard an dthen married an architect who had cone to Columbia and was also a Catholic. They had a big, rambling house up the street from us, set behind a morbid facade of pine trees, and surrounded by scooters, tricyccles, doll carriages, toy fire trucks, baseball bats, badminton nets, croquet wickets, hamster cages and cocker spaniel puppies – the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood.
Dodo interested me in spite of myself,
Her house wa sunlike all the others inour neighbourhood in its size (it was much bigger) and its colour (the second storey was constucted of dark brown clapboard and the first of grey stucco, studded with grey and purple golf-ball-shaped stone), and the pine trees completelyu screened it from view, which was considered unsociable in our community of adjoining lawns and friendly, waist-high hedges.
Dodo raised her six children – and would no doubt raise her seventh – on rice crispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice-cream and gallon upon gallon of Hoods milk. She got a special discount from the local milkman.
Everybody loved Dodo, although the swelling size of her family was the talk of the neighbourhood. The older poeple around, like my mother had two children,a nd the younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was onthe verge of a seventh. Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo was a Catholic.
I watched Dodo wheel the youngest Conway up and down.
She seemed to be doint it for my benefit.
Children made me sick.
A floorboard creaked, and I ducked down again, just as Dodo Conway’s face, by instinct, or some gift of supernatural hearing, turned on the little pivot of its neck.

I felt her gaze pierce through the white clapboard and the pink, wallpaper roses and uncover me, crouching there behind the silver pickets of the radiator.
I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head nder the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night.
I couldn’t see the point of getting up.
I had nothing to look forward to.”

Grotesquely fertile Dodo obviously represent one of the opportunities Esther might go with: The possibility of getting married and having children. Later the idea of learning short-hand in order to be able to support herself right after college is presented to her, but like with Dodo’s life path (“Children made me sick”), it is rejected by Esther who can’t imagine herself doing any job that short-hand might qualify her for. But what I particularly like about the description of Esther watching Dodo is the way everything seems to enter into the increasingly depressed Esther’s body: The creak of the baby carriage, Mrs. Ockenden’s and Dodo’s gaze, the sickening abundance of Dodo’s children’s diet which seems to anticipate Esther’s dismissive statement that “children made [her] sick”. The unbearably  Esther seems porous, or perhaps liquid in these paragraphs; everything seems to penetrate her or run through her. Especially so because Esther is starting to feel like she has reached an academic dead-end. Esther’s academic career is flashy and impressive, but as Esther starts to sense; it lacks usefulness, it lacks substance, and it provides no solid ground beneath her feet. Esther lists the possibilities she sees for herself with a pace that’s dizzying, only to dismiss them immediately:

“Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel.
I thought I might learn shorthand in no time, and when the freckled lady in the Scholraships Office asked me why I hadn’t worked to arn money in July and August, the way you were supposed to if you were a scholarship girl, I could tell her I had taken a free shorthand course instead, so I could support myself right after college.
I thought I would spend the summer reading Finnegan’s Wake and writing my thesis.
Then I thought I might put off college for a year and apprentice myself to a pottery maker.
Or work my way to Germany and be a waitress, until I was bilingual.
I decided to junk my thesis.
I decided to junk the whole honours programme and become an ordinary English major. I went to look up the requirements of an ordinary English major at my college.
There were lots of requirements, and I didn’t have half of them. One of the requirements was a course in th eighteenth centry. I hated te very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight litle couplets and being so dead keen on reason. So I’d skipped it. THey let you do that in honours, you were much freer. Ihad been so free I’d spentmost of my time on Dylan Thomas.
I saw how impossible and embarrassing it would be for me to try to switch form my free programm into the stricter one. So I looked up the requirements for English majors at the city college where my mother taught.
They were even worse.
You had to know Old English and the History of the English Language and a representative selection of all that had been written from Beowulf to the present ay.
This surprised me. I had always looked down on my mother’s college, as it was co-ed, and filled with people who couldn’t get scholarship to the big eastern clleges.
Now I saw that the stupidest person at y mother’s college knew more than I did. I saw they wouldn’t even let me in through the door, let alone give me a large scholarship like the one I had at my own college.
I thought Id’ better go to work for a year and think things over. Maybe I could study the eighteenth century in secret.
But I didn’t know shorthand, so what could I do?
I could be a waitress or a tyist.
But I couldn’t stand the idea of being either one.”

Nothing is substantial in Esther’s life this “sweltering” July (as Esther describes the month in the novel she attempts to write at one point, sitting idly at her mother’s type-writer ), and when you don’t feel like you’re substantial, naturally you can’t act, you can’t take action. You cannot even sleep, as Esther shows us, in the paragraph that’s almost been the most moving and most poignantly depressing of the novel, the one that describes Esther absurdly covering herself with her mattress:

“I saw the years of my life spaed along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.
I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn’t shut out the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough.

It needed about a ton more weight to make me sleep.”

This is a description of a depression first, and the month of July second. Even so, it’s one of the most accurate descriptions of a month that I can think of in literature. And it certainly resonated with me that July eight years ago, so I thought it deserved a Calendary Literature entry.

2 responses to “Calendary Literature – July – The Bell Jar

  1. I’d love to read more about Sylvia Plath’s “Bell Jar” for I think people do not appreciate it much. So happy to find this post of yours.

  2. Thank you for writing such an informative post. I am a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s writing and as it happens am currently reading ‘The Bell Jar’ again. I shall certainly be thinking of your great insight regarding Esther’s insubstantiality as I continue to do so.


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