Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
Sylvia Plath really should’ve written about a Ball jar, not a bell jar. For one, I had to google what a bell jar was, and it was incredibly disappointing. More pertinently, at no point in all my angst-ridden youth did I think: Ah, yes, forget all those silly elaborate metaphors about drowning and being crushed by the weight of existence; nothing represents my mental state so truly as the piece of glass over the rose in the introduction of that august Disney film, Beauty and the Beast. Now, what’s that thing called….
I have never liked Sylvia Plath. No particular reason, but boy has a lot of pop culture baggage accumulated around her. She was the Rupi Kaur before there was such a thing; excessively romanticized to the point of outright delusion. At least Plath has a legitimate literary pedigree going for her, I suppose (e.g., it blew my little undergraduate mind when I found out Ted Hughes was Plath’s husband). But besides maybe analysing a poem in class and talking obliquely about the themes of The Bell Jar, it doesn’t seem like anyone really… likes her? So much time has been spent mythologising Plath that the flesh and blood person has disappeared.
Now, back to Plath’s key error about jars. Okay, so I suppose one could rhapsodise at length about how Plath was decidedly biassed by her own experiences with the terrifying shit that was mid-twentieth century psychiatric medicine. A cursory glance over Plath’s Wikipedia page attests to the horrors she experienced in the name of medicine during her deeply unhappy existence. I guess bell jars fit in with the whole gothic horror show of crude laboratory science with the brain…. But still. Imagine how much cash the Plath/Hughes estate could’ve made with all their Ball jar merch, not to mention appealing to a wider audience base than angsty young adults and tapping into the abundant millennial generation.
The Ball Jar details the life of Esther Greenwood, a college student who dreams of becoming a deinfluencer. She is selected for a month-long summer internship as a guest at TikTok, but her time in New York City is unfulfilling as she struggles with issues of identity and societal norms and the self-induced pressure to be a minimalist. She meets two other interns who manifest contrasting views of feminine consumption: the chaotic and “it girl” Doreen and the wholesome but naive vegan goth Betsy. During this time, Esther thinks about her boyfriend, Buddy Willard, and her anger when he admitted that he thought her dreams were unrealistic and impractical. She believes he is a hypocrite, as he strives to become a Linkedin cryptobro while downplaying her own efforts to become a deinfluencer. After failing to obtain enough views to continue her TikTok internship, Esther must spend the rest of her summer at home with her almond mom of a mother; Esther’s parents divorced when she was young and her father died from Covid-19 on a yacht owned by a dubious Russian businessman. She struggles to find the right lighting and produce quality content in her mother’s uninspiring condo, becoming increasingly despondent and making several half-hearted career suicide attempts. She ultimately deletes her social media accounts but fails to delete the apps off of her phone.
Esther is admitted to an exclusive digital detox wellness retreat, where she is influenced by a new age therapist who, among other things, eases her concerns about her material consumption and encourages her to get in the habit of reselling items for outrageous prices. Esther confides to the therapist that she sometimes sees herself as living in a Ball jar. She feels like she’s trapped inside, gathering dust in the back of a cupboard because she isn’t a modern Ball jar with a handle or a fancy straw-accommodating lid, but people still have the audacity to scrutinise her and then ignore her.
While visiting a local mall, Esther loses her credit card and phone, both of which she sees as millstones. When she begins to have a panic attack, she seeks the help of another retreat-goer, Joan, who goes with her to report her missing belongings to the mall security. Shortly thereafter Joan commits career suicide, deleting all of her social accounts (totally over a million followers!) and her metaphorical digital death seems to quell Esther’s own thoughts of metaphorical digital death. The novel ends with a seemingly reborn Esther about to face mall security, who will inform her if they’ve found her belongings.
(Adapted from “The Bell Jar: Summary” on Encyclopaedia Britannica.)