I suspect Sylvia Plath’s poetry anthology and her one single novel have been examined and analysed ad infinitum, and I’m damn certain I can offer nothing remotely new. But having just reread ‘The Bell Jar’ some fifty years after its publication, it seems there is still much of relevance for our contemporary times. Two central themes from ‘The Bell Jar’ still resonate today. Firstly, questions surrounding mental illness and clinical depression are far from having been resolved. Is mental illness and breakdown a social phenomenon or simply the result of a chemical imbalance? Or more likely, is it a complex combination of the two?  Secondly, and I would suggest of equal relevance to our times, is the role of monogamy, marriage and patriarchy in contemporary society, both east and west. To Plath’s credit, I found absolutely nothing dated about this novel; it felt as fresh and as engaging as the day it was published.  And I should add, the tragedy of Plath’s suicide is as poignant today as it was half a century ago.

As of all questions within the nature/nurture conundrum, only a dialectic approach seems to yield anything like a satisfactory response. To adopt an either/or approach just seems hopelessly inadequate. We are just starting to grasp the enormity of mental illness as a modern day phenomenon. The use of pharmaceuticals, booze and illegal drugs to ease the pain and torment of modern day life is truly staggering. Levels of insomnia, anxiety and outright depression seem to be growing exponentially. And little wonder given equally exponential change in economic and cultural norms. The nature of work and the relationships have changed beyond recognition. The role of both women and men is unrecognizable from that of half a century ago. Technological change seems to render today’s normal as totally obsolete by tomorrow. And the rate of change shows no sign of abating. We all seem to be on a roller-coaster to the unknown. Sylvia Plath, I suspect, intuitively grasped what lay ahead, and through a dark combination of volatile personal chemistry and an astute awareness of radical social change, she got sucked into a vortex from which there was no return. Now countless millions of us are in danger of being sucked into that very same vortex and only a bucket load of anti-depressants prevents us from following in Plath’s footsteps.

I often wonder just how we stay as sane as we do given the pressure cooker we all live in. We are certainly a million miles away from our instinctual hunter-gatherer selves. 24/7 we are indoctrinated to want things that are at best pointless and at worst damn right toxic. The end result being a mindless consumerist world  peopled by obese neurotics addicted to anything and everything. And the end result of our collective addictions – possibly the terminal collapse of the planet’s eco system. We know what we are doing but we keep on doing it. If this is not collective insanity I don’t know what is.  

Did Sylvia Plath see all this coming? Maybe she did or maybe she didn’t, but she sure as hell did not want to get trapped into a misogynist nightmare of suburban marriage. Not for her the role of obedient house servant and sexually frustrated compliant wife. If ‘The Bell Jar’ is essentially autobiographical, and I assume it is, then Plath could be said to have had a rare insight into what was in store for western women in the post war consumerist dystopia. Had she managed to live with this dystopia as well as dealing with her own personal demons, she may have grown to be as influential as say Naomi Klein or even Noam Chomsky. Certainly she could have become as productive as Doris Lessing. Her potential to decisively deconstruct our modern, manufactured nightmare is all too obvious. ‘The Bell Jar’ stands the test of time. Fifty years on the bell jar is starting to envelope us all.

End JPK Copyright 2/1/15

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Last Updated ( Friday, 02 January 2015 13:13 )