Sylvia Plath, the fig tree, and chick-lit

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a piece of iconic feminist writing, which is dark, witty and extremely painful, outlining and diving into the experiences of a woman who is mentally disturbed and agitated with antiquated gender roles and stereotypes. There are several wonderful things that the book explains with a perceptive and smart protagonist, someone who is self-aware and yet, a part of a tumultuous society that just will not take her seriously. She is not the heroine of the story; instead she is a brilliant woman who is slowly sliding into the inner depths of her own psyche and losing touch with what matters most to her. Personally, the harrowing experience she narrates about being depressed is all too real, and palpably painful.

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In 2013, Faber & Faber came out with a new edition for the book The Bell Jar. The cover featured a lady powdering her face, making it a standard “chick-lit” novel that would be marketed specifically towards women. It hid the actual idea of the book in the recesses of its redness; one of a vehement fight against gender roles and the short biographic account of a ‘madwoman’, the kind that Plath had herself been. Chick-lit is generally defined as literature with a female protagonist whose womanhood is severely thematized in the storyline, and by this definition alone, The Bell Jar is, in fact, chick-lit. Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, says in an interview with The Telegraph,

“If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction? I mean, I can’t tell you. When people call The Storyteller chick-lit, I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick-lit ever.”

The issue with calling books chick-lit is that it gives the false notion that the value of the books is only so far as the audience reading it is a woman. This idea, one that men’s books can be read by everyone, but women’s books can only be read by women, is toxic and unpleasant. When the story of the modern woman is narrated by a female author, the issues it addresses are considered to be frivolous, which is why reading chick-lit authors is a frivolous reading activity. Which brings us back to the definition of what chick-lit is – the fact that a book having a central theme as women’s issues is quickly shelved into “women’s fiction”; a book intended mostly for women to read. There is no real reason why a man should be interested in women’s issues or a female perspective, considering that most of these issues are swept under the rug with an air of silliness.

Shelving Plath’s The Bell Jar in a similar manner angers me. It can no longer be a classic produced by American literature, a testament to mental illness, gender disparities, and female sexuality; instead, it becomes a book intended for women to just relate to and keep men out of. It is a book that I would highly recommend to everyone, not just women, to understand the nuances of how depression can tear down an entire personality, about seething self-doubt in the mind of a brilliant writer, and the quirky enthusiasm of a person to end her own life.

A beautiful representation of one of the best quotes from The Bell Jar appeared in the Netflix original series Master of None, which is created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. The show is a gentle reminder of Louie, which kept me captivated with its surreal style of story-writing, exaggerated humour, and the dark wit of Louis CK. Master of None captures the essence of a second generation Indian man living in the US quite well, and addresses issues related to race and ethnography in a humourous manner that I already loved Aziz Ansari for. The show is not merely funny though; the characters seem real and well-thought out, and in one of the episodes they made great use of a quote from The Bell Jar. A man quoting Sylvia Plath as a perfect depiction of what he is feeling at the moment felt to me like a step away from thinking of women’s fiction the way that it is at this point in literary circles.

A summary of what he feels his life could be like is perfectly described in the book with these lines, which is one of the best quotes I have ever had the pleasure of reading:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. 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.”

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/01/the-bell-jar-new-cover-derided

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/opinion/the-snobs-and-me.html?_r=0

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/jodi-picoult-its-really-hard-to-love-America-sometimes/

 

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