A Literary Feast -- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Inspired by a comment by a fellow Gilmore-loving podcast Under the Floorboards, I picked up The Bell Jar when I saw it on one of BookRiot’s daily deals (and if you haven’t yet signed up for their daily deals, dooooo it). To be honest, the only thing I knew about Sylvia Plath is from a Gilmore girls quote (S4:E13): “Hey, did anyone ever think that maybe Sylvia Plath wasn’t crazy, she was just cold?” She probably was cold, too, but that’s jumping ahead of the story. The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel detailing the mental down-spiraling of a young woman who appears to have much of life handed to her on a platter. Now, granted, Esther Greenwood comes from humble beginnings. However, throughout her life she is given great opportunities, from the “special tidbits” of food her grandfather would bring her from the country club where he worked, to a full scholarship to a prestigious school, to an elite internship at a fashion magazine in NYC, and even a benevolent benefactress who allows her to be treated at the nicest of sanitariums. She has a handsome boyfriend who she takes for granted; although he borders the line of stalking, so her distance may be well-founded. Esther is young, beautiful, intelligent, talented. She is a feminist, remarking about her mother’s wish that she learn shorthand, “She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter. The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.” She looks at all of this, however, as if outside of herself, looking at someone else’s life while her own face displays only ennui. The path she takes from competent fashion writer to recipient of electroshock therapy seems so gradual and matter-of-fact that the reader sits in the mental hospital like a boiled lobster, shocked at how quickly things devolved.

It is never quite clear what Esther’s diagnosis is. Signs of schizophrenia seem evident, but little insight is given of the medical details. Of course, the reason for this is that The Bell Jar is written in first-person narrative. Oh, how I love a good unreliable first-person narrator! Keeps you on your toes. Let’s be clear about one thing: the immediate post-partum period, full of sleep-deprivation and crazy fluctuating hormones, is not the best time to read a book about a psychotic break. I had a raging headache one night and asked my husband to bring up my bottle of painkillers. He looked at me warily and asked, “How many do you need?” Ha ha! He only brought me one, the little tightwad. Had he known about Sylvia Plath, he would have installed an oven lock, too. I did love this book. I will say, although typically I don’t like knowing “the end of the story” before I begin, in this case, much of the string holding this book together for me was the knowledge that it is semi-autobiographical and knowing what happened in the author’s life after the book was written. Take a tour around her Wikipedia site at some point during or after your reading of the novel. It takes a well-written novel and adds a component of tabloid sensationalism to it. We are all drawn to train wrecks, are we not?

As is my custom, I parsed the novel for food references and symbolism. She talks quite a bit about food, as a matter of fact. In the narrator’s words, “I’m not sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else.” Regarding family systems, food may be the tie to her best relationship. The relationship with her mother is rocky at best, her grandmother was one who “cooked economy joints and economy meat loafs and had the habit of saying, the minute you lifted the first forkful to your mouth, ‘I hope you enjoy that, it cost forty-one cents a pound.” But her grandfather– ah, her grandfather. He was the person she viewed with the most fondness, and it was he who inspired her love of food. Nostalgia is a powerful force. For the purposes of this post, I chose three separate food references to recreate and serve.

A Literary Feast -- avocado with garnet sauce#1: “Avocados are my favorite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and french dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce.” I’m skeptical about this one. French dressing and grape jelly? Luckily I already have half the ingredients, as my inlaws somehow happen to leave half a jar of Bama Grape Jelly in our fridge every time they visit. Ratios weren’t specified, so I combined a quarter cup of each in a saucepan. The result, as you can see, was a beautiful garnet sauce which made the avocado appear brutally stabbed through the heart. This wasn’t too bad. If you like to dress up your food with various sauces, you may like to try it. I’m an avocado purist, so I won’t likely be making this again.

#2: “He loved introducing me to special tidbits, and by the age of nine I had developed a passionate taste for cold vichyssoise and caviar and anchovy paste.” and “My favorite dishes are full of butter and cheese and sour cream.” Oh, girl, you and me both! The first quote refers to her grandfather, of course, and the food he smuggled from his job at the country club. Knowing that I would probably hate caviar and anchovy paste (not to mention blow my non-existent budget on them), I opted to make vichyssoise. This is potato soup, friends– just cold and creamy potato soup. I used Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Vichyssoise Recipe. This was the first time I had ever bought leeks and was amazed at how much of my cart they filled. Only use the white parts? Whatever do you do with the tree growing on top? It was kind of a crazy week, so I just tossed the green parts, but I’m very welcome to suggestions for its use in order to reduce waste. Lots of butter and cream in this recipe, pureed smooth. I love potato soup and cold soups, so this was a nice addition to the meal, but it certainly isn’t headline material. A New England girl at heart, I’d prefer my potato soups to be more like, well… chowder!

A Literary Feast -- the Bell Jar meal

#3: “Arrayed on the Ladies’ Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar.” What amused me about this passage in the novel is her description that while all of the other girls were socializing and chatting senselessly, Esther spent her time angling the best position for the food, and surreptitiously filling her plate over and over again. Unluckily for her, the Ladies’ Day Food Testing Kitchen messed up this luncheon with a rip-roaring case of food poisoning in the crabmeat. The whole group of girls “started keeling over like ninepins” and the Ladies’ Day bigwigs plied them with even more gifts so the scandal wouldn’t leak. Quite the amusing scene. As meals go, this was a simple one. However, being the aforementioned avocado purist, I filled one with crabmeat, took the picture, and saved it for my husband, as I detest crabmeat.

A Literary Feast -- drinking soupAs for Chompers, he was surprisingly really excited about this meal. Loved the vichyssoise, and soon ditched the spoon for a more effective method of delivery, as pictured. 🙂 The roast beef amused him to no end, thanks to this sweet book that I highly recommend if you have children. (Finally, someone has explained why one piggy has roast beef and another has none!)A Literary Feast -- Five Little Piggies

With so many food references, I want to reference two more quotes that seem to highlight the narrator’s mental state. Post-NYC and pre-psychiatrist appointments, Esther is living at her mother’s house, trying to figure out what to do with her life. This little blurb is just stuck in there: “I strolled into the kitchen, dropped a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger, mixed it up and ate it.” Um, what? Is this some weird protein fad that the ladies of the 50s were trying? Or a raw insight into her mixed up mind? It’s a complete non sequitur.

The last quote about food occurs while Esther is residing in the mental hospital. In that setting, where schedule reigns and there is not much to break up the monotony, I can imagine that for a lover of food like herself, meals are anticipated with relish and food is thought about much, similar to what we saw with Zelda Fitzgerald. On this particular morning, Esther is alarmed that the server has skipped her room with the breakfast trays and she immediately goes to the kitchen to investigate the matter. Being a lover of breakfast myself, I can identify with this quote: “I looked with love at the lineup of waiting trays– the white paper napkins, folded in their crisp, isosceles triangles, each under the anchor of its silver fork, the pale domes of soft-boiled eggs in the blue egg cups, the scalloped glass shells of orange marmalade.” 

As Esther’s mental health is devolving, sadly too is the food she so loves, from the ptomaine-laced crabmeat, to that horrific raw protein snack, to the last meal described that she is forbidden from eating. I’ll leave you to the book to find out why.