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The Bell Jar

Book Notes

This is one of those books I was "supposed" to have read in high school. I'm fairly certain, no, I know that I would not have understood many of the messages, commentary, points had I actually read it in high school. Or college for that matter. Possibly in college, unsure.

One of the main reasons that reading in high school or college would have been better than, say, now after I have "life experience," is that literature people and critics have picked over all the ideas, all the critiques, all the arguments. Every lesson to be learned or taught has been made, meaning one needs only to read the book, and wait for someone else to tell you what to think.

Which is probably why my thoughts throughout this book were along the lines of, "JF, woman," and "JF this is the EPITOME of depression," and "Gah, someone help this woman," and "I am glad I am more self-aware than this woman," and "Oh, right, the fifties, this wasn't my world."

I summarize this book as, "Esther Greenwood is a stunningly self-centered twit." Unfair, to be sure, but come on, she leaves her friend at a party to be raped, stumbles back to her hotel drunk, a long enough stumble that she's quite sober by the end of her walk, then leaves said friend swimming in her own puke outside Esther's hotel door," and I'm supposed to connect with this character?

I mean, talk about a girl who could do with some serious gratitude journalling and expectations resetting.

Much of the book surrounds Esther judgements about everything around her, and fantasies about how things should be, and HEY THEY AREN'T THAT WAY.

Take the prison guard fantasy:

I was thinking that if I’d had the sense to go on living in that old town I might just have met this prison guard in school and married him and had a parcel of kids by now. It would be nice, living by the sea with piles of little kids and pigs and chickens, wearing what my grandmother called wash dresses, and sitting about in some kitchen with bright linoleum and fat arms, drinking pots of coffee.
Page: 115

Her constantly living in a made-up world, believing the grass in greener on the other side of the fence, thinking that everyone is doing better, is happier, has more, is a fundamental cause of her despression.

And, oh boy, is her depression incredibly obvious in this book. I was reading parts and just felt the Dark start ooozing into the walls around me. I promptly turned on the lights, rushed off a dozen pushups, called my mother, and switched my reading to a technical book, what with light, exercise, community, and meaning being the best bulwark against depression.

I'd say if you're required to read it in school, there are worse books. If you're a Plath fan, have at it. If you're depressed, this book won't help, but you can see someone else's depressive thoughts, so maybe that'll be okay. If you're not in school and not depressed and not a Plath fan, this is a good commentary and insight into woman's place in the 1950's, which echoes to today.

This hotel—the Amazon—was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them; and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other.
Page: 4

These girls looked awfully bored to me. I saw them on the sunroof, yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans, and they seemed bored as hell. I talked with one of them, and she was bored with yachts and bored with flying around in airplanes and bored with skiing in Switzerland...
Page: 4

Girls like that make me sick. I’m so jealous I can’t speak.
Page: 4

Jay Cee wanted to teach me something, all the old ladies I ever knew wanted to teach me something, but I suddenly didn’t think they had anything to teach me.
Page: 6

So great to know everything. The older I get, the less I know, but, hey, you go, you nineteen year old you.

My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.
Page: 9

I understand this dream!

Every so often Lenny and Doreen would bang into each other and kiss and then swing back to take a long drink and close in on each other again. I thought I might just lie down on the bearskin and go to sleep until Doreen felt ready to go back to the hotel. Then Lenny gave a terrible roar. I sat up. Doreen was hanging on to Lenny’s left earlobe with her teeth. “Leggo, you bitch!” Lenny stooped, and Doreen went flying up on to his shoulder, and her glass sailed out of her hand in a long, wide arc and fetched up against the pine paneling with a silly tinkle. Lenny was still roaring and whirling round so fast I couldn’t see Doreen’s face.
Page: 13

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”
Page: 16

I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped her onto my bed I would never get rid of her again.
Page: 17

I started to lower Doreen gently onto the green hall carpet, but she gave a low moan and pitched forward out of my arms. A jet of brown vomit flew from her mouth and spread in a large puddle at my feet.
Page: 18

I made a decision about Doreen that night. I decided I would watch her and listen to what she said, but deep down I would have nothing at all to do with her. Deep down, I would be loyal to Betsy and her innocent friends. It was Betsy I resembled at heart.
Page: 18

My mid-read note went something like, "okay, so, she convinces her friend to go with this guy, leaves said friend to be raped, then ignores the friend when she returns. good friend, you."

In New York we had so many free luncheons with people on the magazine and various visiting celebrities I developed the habit of running my eye down those huge handwritten menus, where a tiny side dish of peas cost fifty or sixty cents, until I’d picked the richest, most expensive dishes and ordered a string of them.
Page: 19

I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.
Page: 21

I told Doreen I would not go to the show or the luncheon or the film première, but that I would not go to Coney Island either, I would stay in bed. After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.
Page: 23

Hooboy, hello, depression.

I tried to imagine what it would be like if I were Ee Gee, the famous editor, in an office full of potted rubber plants and African violets my secretary had to water each morning. I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do.
Page: 30

The fantasy world hitting hard, hitting early. Guess what, most adults are guessing.

My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust life insurance salesmen. She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree. “Even the apostles were tentmakers,” she’d say. “They had to live, just the way we do.”
Page: 30

There I went again, building up a glamorous picture of a man who would love me passionately the minute he met me, and all out of a few prosy nothings. A duty tour of the UN and a post-UN sandwich!
Page: 40

Right. Lesson she needs to learn: life is lived in the mundane, not on the mountain tops.

Probably Mrs. Willard’s simultaneous interpreter would be short and ugly and I would come to look down on him in the end the way I looked down on Buddy Willard. This thought gave me a certain satisfaction.
Page: 40

And here we have cynicism as a defense mechanism.

The worst part of it was I couldn’t come straight out and tell him what I thought of him, because he caught TB before I could do that, and now I had to humor him along till he got well again and could take the unvarnished truth.
Page: 40

I can understand the telling of societal's expectation of the female's handling the delicate male ego.

I hate handing over money to people for doing what I could just as easily do myself, it makes me nervous.
Page: 41

Let's bring it back around again and discuss how spending money is a psychological loss, and yes, hurts.

I was surprised to hear this, because of all the blind dates I’d had that year not one called me up again for a second date. I just didn’t have any luck. I hated coming downstairs sweaty-handed and curious every Saturday night and having some senior introduce me to her aunt’s best friend’s son and finding some pale, mushroomy fellow with protruding ears or buck teeth or a bad leg. I didn’t think I deserved it. After all, I wasn’t crippled in any way, I just studied too hard, I didn’t know when to stop.
Page: 45

"Studied too hard."

That's self-rationalization for "is a judgmental ass."

I started out by dressing in a white coat and sitting on a tall stool in a room with four cadavers, while Buddy and his friends cut them up. These cadavers were so unhuman-looking they didn’t bother me a bit. They had stiff, leathery, purple-black skin and they smelt like old pickle jars. After that, Buddy took me out into a hall where they had some big glass bottles full of babies that had died before they were born. The baby in the first bottle had a large white head bent over a tiny curled-up body the size of a frog. The baby in the next bottle was bigger and the baby next to that one was bigger still and the baby in the last bottle was the size of a normal baby and he seemed to be looking at me and smiling a little piggy smile. I was quite proud of the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things. The only time I jumped was when I leaned my elbow on Buddy’s cadaver’s stomach to watch him dissect a lung. After a minute or two I felt this burning sensation in my elbow and it occurred to me the cadaver might just be half alive since it was still warm, so I leapt off my stool with a small exclamation. Then Buddy explained the burning was only from the pickling fluid, and I sat back in my old position.
Page: 48

This amused me, as I was reading Stiff around the same time.

I was so busy thinking how very fat he was and how unfortunate it must be for a man and especially a young man to be fat, because what woman could stand leaning over that big stomach to kiss him, that I didn’t immediately realize what this student had said to me was an insult.
Page: 49

Did I mention judgmental? How about superficial?

“You oughtn’t to see this,” Will muttered in my ear. “You’ll never want to have a baby if you do. They oughtn’t to let women watch. It’ll be the end of the human race.”
Page: 50

Well, amen. Heaven forbid women actually know what's going to happen. You know what, they still do it even when they do know.

Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
Page: 50

I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over—dead white, of course, with no makeup and from the awful ordeal, but smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was.
Page: 51

Here is what society wants us to believe about childbirth.

“Tell me about it.” I combed my hair slowly over and over, feeling the teeth of the comb dig into my cheek at every stroke. “Who was it?”

Buddy seemed relieved I wasn’t angry. He even seemed relieved to have somebody to tell about how he was seduced.
Page: 54

How he was seduced.. Uh huh.

Back at college I started asking a senior here and a senior there what they would do if a boy they knew suddenly told them he’d slept thirty times with some slutty waitress one summer, smack in the middle of knowing them. But these seniors said most boys were like that and you couldn’t honestly accuse them of anything until you were at least pinned or engaged to be married.
Page: 54

Of course

I had never heard Buddy so upset. He was very proud of his perfect health and was always telling me it was psychosomatic when my sinuses blocked up and I couldn’t breathe. I thought this an odd attitude for a doctor to have and perhaps he should study to be a psychiatrist instead, but of course I never came right out and said so.
Page: 56

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Page: 59

It gave all the reasons a girl shouldn’t sleep with anybody but her husband and then only after they were married. The main point of the article was that a man’s world is different from a woman’s world and a man’s emotions are different from a woman’s emotions and only marriage can bring the two worlds and the two different sets of emotions together properly. My mother said this was something a girl didn’t know about till it was too late, so she had to take the advice of people who were already experts, like a married woman. This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other men and they would end up by making her life miserable. The woman finished her article by saying better be safe than sorry and besides, there was no sure way of not getting stuck with a baby and then you’d really be in a pickle. Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.
Page: 62

And then I wondered if as soon as he came to like me he would sink into ordinariness, and if as soon as he came to love me I would find fault after fault, the way I did with Buddy Willard and the boys before him. The same thing happened over and over: I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.
Page: 64

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.
Page: 65

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.
Page: 65

He didn’t answer but reached over and put his hand at the root of my hair and ran his fingers out slowly to the tip ends like a comb. A little electric shock flared through me and I sat quite still. Ever since I was small I loved feeling somebody comb my hair. It made me go all sleepy and peaceful.
Page: 66

“Remember how you asked me where I like to live best, the country or the city?”

“And you said …”

“And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?” Buddy nodded.

“And you,” I continued with a sudden force, “laughed and said I had the perfect setup of a true neurotic"
Page: 72

And yet, is completely doable, and has been done for centuries. Hello, country estate in the weekends. Hello, Hamptons. Hello, Sonoma.

But the rope dragged me, wobbling and balancing, so rapidly I couldn’t hope to dissociate myself from it halfway. There was a skier in front of me and a skier behind me, and I’d have been knocked over and stuck full of skis and poles the minute I let go, and I didn’t want to make trouble, so I hung quietly on.
Page: 74

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.
Page: 77

“Honestly,” Doreen said, “this one’ll be different.”
Page: 79

It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed.
Page: 80

How is this not the epitome of depressive behavior?

A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach, was wheeling 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.
Page: 89

Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo was a Catholic.
Page: 90

Children made me sick.
Page: 90


I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head.
Page: 90

This is called depression. Melancholy if you must.

But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up.
Page: 90

I reached for the receiver. My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass. I wandered into the dining room.
Page: 91

This surprised me. I had always looked down on my mother’s college, as it was coed, and filled with people who couldn’t get scholarships to the big eastern colleges.
Page: 96

It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
Page: 98

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out. Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end. And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.
Page: 98

“I’m through with that Doctor Gordon,” I said, after we had left Dodo and her black station wagon behind the pines. “You can call him up and tell him I’m not coming next week.”

My mother smiled. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that.”

I looked at her. “Like what?”

“Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.” She paused. “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”
Page: 112

Oh, Esther's mom, depression doesn't work like that.

My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you, so Teresa had arranged for me to sign on as a volunteer at our local hospital.
Page: 124

The earth seemed friendly under my bare feet, but cold. I wondered how long it had been since this particular square of soil had seen the sun.
Page: 130

I wonder this frequently when I pull up cement, or see streets torn up in Paris.

I hate saying anything to a group of people. When I talk to a group of people I always have to single out one and talk to him, and all the while I am talking I feel the others are peering at me and taking unfair advantage. I also hate people to ask cheerfully how you are when they know you’re feeling like hell and expect you to say “Fine.”
Page: 136

“He folded his hands together and looked at me and said, ‘Miss Gilling, we have decided that you would benefit by group therapy.”

“Group therapy?” I thought I must sound phony as an echo chamber, but Joan didn’t pay any notice.

“That’s what he said. Can you imagine me wanting to kill myself, and coming round to chat about it with a whole pack of strangers, and most of them no better than myself….”

“That’s crazy.” I was growing involved in spite of myself. “That’s not even human.”
Page: 152

I laughed at this. Definitely not even human.

I thought if they left me alone I might have some peace. My mother was the worst. She never scolded me, but kept begging me, with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong. She said she was sure the doctors thought she had done something wrong because they asked her a lot of questions about my toilet training, and I had been perfectly trained at a very early age and given her no trouble whatsoever.
Page: 156

I had gone to bed right after supper, but then I heard the piano music and pictured Joan and DeeDee and Loubelle, the blonde woman, and the rest of them, laughing and gossiping about me in the living room behind my back.
Page: 158

“I don’t see what women see in other women,” I told Doctor Nolan in my interview that noon. “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?”

Doctor Nolan paused. Then she said, “Tenderness.”

That shut me up.
Page: 168

I thought how lucky it was I had started practicing birth control during the day, because in my winey state that night I would never have bothered to perform the delicate and necessary operation. I lay, rapt and naked, on Irwin’s rough blanket, waiting for the miraculous change to make itself felt.
Page: 175

And hadn’t Buddy said, as if to revenge himself for my digging out the car and his having to stand by, “I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther.”

“What?” I’d said, shoveling snow up onto a mound and blinking against the stinging backshower of loose flakes.

“I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther. Now you’ve been,” and Buddy’s gesture encompassed the hill, the pines and the severe, snow-gabled buildings breaking up the rolling landscape, “here.”
Page: 185

F--- off, fifties era people who believe that depression is a death-knell, that getting help means you're damaged goods. F--- off anyone who believe that depression means you're a lesser person.

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