Our Fourth Session of LiterEature 101 commences with a brief discussion on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
I could have easily done another segment on the second volume of the Young Adult Series I am reading, The Gideon Trilogy (now known as the Time Travelers, the Time Thief, and the Time Quake, respectively) but I would be doing my heart severe injustice to pass on one of the most stellar novels I have read in recent times. There are moments when I discover something so poignant, reflective, and just REAL even in its schizophrenic perspectives, that remind me why my degrees in English and Anthropology are relevant and valuable, even if I haven’t truly monopolized on them yet. The Bell Jar obviously fits that category by exposing with clarity the struggles of femininity vs feminism, identity, and sexuality that every generation experiences at some point (notably during and after college), especially girls. A synopsis does it no justice—the story of a young woman’s steady descent into depression one pivotal summer, her succumbing to attempted suicide and the journey of recovery. You might think “oh dear god!” but if you don’t fall in love with the author by the end of this experience, then we have some problems.
A most fitting Bonus: It includes, without a doubt, one of the finest short sections of “food writing” that I have ever read (other books that come to mind are Tripmaster Monkey and The Book of Salt but neither engage the reader even half the way this does). Her sweet ponderings over avocados (“avocado pears”) is remarkably endearing. Observations:
I realize how much I adore academia by wanting to study, analyze, and just rip apart this novel and then explore every single one of her poems (for she was a more prolific poet than anything else). In all honesty, I’m overwhelmed with where to start, so it may be best to keep this brief.
Despite having been written over half a century ago, I think anyone, any girl or woman especially, would find some truths within this that she could hold close to her heart. We all struggle with determining our path, and determining whether we are useful and viable members of society in some capacity. When “Esther” begins to question her talents and her direction, it leaves her even more distraught once she learns she was not accepted into the summer writing program she felt she was destined for. For her, suicide seems like the only obvious option, and while it is drastic by any measure, it reflects the sum of numerous elements—rejection, confusion, and mental instability itself. Aside from the actual events that ensue, we don’t ever get a clear description of what IS WRONG with her, just simply that she feels trapped in “the bell jar,” unable to breathe, to sleep, to feel free and liberated from social, academic, person expectations.
But it is within and beneath the actual writing that we find where her troubles are—not just the obvious tensions between being a homebody housewife or an ultra-liberal professional woman, the only two extremes she felt she was presented with. But majority of the time it feels that she lacks control over her life, that things just HAPPEN to her without her consent or control, that she is simply a bystander. It may be from passing out from food poisoning, where the ground rises up to meet her cheek rather than her tumbling down. It could be the inability to stop herself from plummeting down a snowy mountain on skis, where instead she just lets it take her down and she has a brief glimpse of freedom and flight. Sylvia’s voice is provocative but almost innocent and naive, thoughtful but always teetering towards deathly nuances. I read in the forward that in reading her novel now, it is easy to pinpoint elements of schizophrenic perception, indicating that she unwillingly suffered more deeply than doctors could identify or understand in the 50’s. Their solution? Electro-shock therapy, which is so skillfully depicted in the novel. It is after all an autobiographical work of fiction, based on her own experiences one summer. So everything we read is spoken directly from the heart.
Review: I just checked out the unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath from the library. That should pretty much express the hold this short novel had on me. Some might think it seems perverse to feel drawn to someone who repeatedly attempted suicide due to such severe bouts of depression, but the confessional style which Sylvia spoke through has such an air of genuineness, honesty, and clarity that you can see exactly how she is feeling, almost as if it’s your own thoughts. Her writing also lays wide open the exact thoughts, pains, and problems that society was not willing to expose or openly discuss, notably sexuality, feminine identity, and especially psychological issues.
I’ve become more interested in delving into her life now, and it saddens me to think that somehow the bell jar descended upon her again and she couldn’t escape the pressure, the solitude, and the suffocation of her own troubled mind. That she killed herself at 30 is tragic; that she created so much art beforehand is bittersweet. It always makes you wonder about what could have been. But I have discovered that I’m not the only (aspiring/potential/would-be/just-a-pipe-dream) writer with a true love for cooking. Not that I thought I was, obviously. But Sylvia loved to cook, it was a past time, a relaxing agent, a way to find focus, another world to study and explore. I feel that this simple and basic knowledge legitimizes my blog just a tad more.
I need to add that the food-centric section of the novel I referred to earlier is not just a source of beauty and amusement, but also encapsulates how the protagonist exerts control on this one portion of her life. Where everything else is chaotic and out of her hands, good and bad happens and she has no say, this section reveals how she purposely hoards and consumes the entire dishes before her because that is something she CAN do.
The Food: A mixture of reminiscence and taste infatuation are so skillfully woven in segments of the book that you feel the slices of chicken coated in caviar nearly slide down your own throat (not something I would personally savor, but to each their own). I could have used something there to remake then, and the obvious choice would have been avocados filled with a grape jelly/French dressing sauce. However, I read online of others’ attempts at this, and no one could actually find the proper recipe that “Esther’s” grandfather used to make that scintillated her so much.
So exploration began, and I stumbled upon a cake so disturbing that I couldn’t NOT try it. What made it imperative for me was the importance this dish held in Sylvia’s life. I believe it was one of her go-to recipes for comfort and familiarity. Even when she moved to London, Sylvia would request from her mom the proper specifications of the recipe since she was dealing with metric units. And she held on such an infinitely high pedestal the source of the recipe, The Joy of Cooking. Before I get to it, I also made another dish that supposedly she was baking at the time she wrote one of her most famous poems, “Lady Lazarus.”
So this spread is entirely dessert, and entirely themed around the whims and desires of the author, speaking not only to her tastes but also to the popular styles and ingredients of the time. So let’s start with the crazy one first.
Tomato Soup Cake: Yes that’s right. I used Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup as a star ingredient to this, and trust me when I admit how scared I was of daring it. God, I can still remember the smell as I opened the can… and poured it into flour and sugar… but the mix of spices are brilliant in masking it and creating what could have been a carrot or pumpkin cake. In fact, it should be matched with a cream cheese frosting, but I didn’t have enough ingredients on hand, so I had it alone which was perfect. It is meant to be nice and warm (leave at room temperature) and the soup gives it true moistness that is phenomenal. I have to say though, I felt I was thrown back to the 50’s just by the soup can itself, which still looked like it belonged in the 50’s. Google the recipe if you dare. It turned out remarkably well, and my guinea pigs reveled in it until I told them what was in it, to which I got a hearty “Ewww!” before continuing to eat. It really was so soft.
Lemon Pudding Cake (aka Lemon Sponge Custard): Oh this felt like high dining from a fancy restaurant. I was so flabbergasted to realize I did it right. What happens is that although you mix everything together, once it bakes it separates into two layers, a light sponge cake on top and a decadent lemon custard below. HEART FLUTTERING JUST AT THE MEMORY. I say memory because this was devoured by everyone I served it to, and I’m left with nothing but a happy memory. This is perfect served with whipped cream and a cloud of powdered sugar on top.
Both recipes come from The Joy of Cooking and can probably still be found in there. I would recommend both. And if you want to get one step closer to perusing Sylvia Plath’s thoughts, it wouldn’t hurt to eat like she did. Well, probably just sparingly, as she seemed to love the fattiest foods.