I recently re-read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The book has been a favourite of mine, but this time around I really felt the book spoke to me in a way. Academia and I have a complicated relationship. I love to study and learn, and I also love to share that knowledge with fellow university students. I love writing short stories, novels, and songs and it is all I want to do. The pressure to succeed at all of these things is immense and overwhelming at times. For every small success and achievement I collect there are 50 rejections and a chorus of people telling me I can’t do it. Often, I am one of those people.
Plath’s character Esther, which we know is actually a pseudonym for Sylvia, struggles with success and the pressures of society and academia. Esther is constantly worried about her success with scholarships, poem writing, and her femininity. She is caught between the lofty dreams of becoming a poet and academic and starting a family. Something that she fears cannot simultaneously come to fruition.
As I read Plath’s book, I could not help but think of my own predicament in life: I’m 28, still studying, and trying to make my way in the viciously competitive world of academia. Many of my friends are married with kids, developing their careers, and having a life I secretly envy although in all honesty don’t want. I believe that I and Plath struggle/d with imposter syndrome: the idea that you are really not good at what you do, a mere fraud, and you are waiting for someone to call you out on it. I have found it’s fairly common in the academic world. And even though I am reading Plath’s novel 50 years after it was first published, I cannot help but feel that the struggle of imposter syndrome and battling with work and family are still very real problems for women. Society has come so far and yet reading Plath’s book made me wonder if it was really as far as I had originally thought?
The beautiful thing about The Bell Jar is that it is a book that doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once. Each time I read it, I see a new side to the story and to Esther’s struggles. Like Plath, I cannot help but wonder if my creativity has dried up, if I will ever amount to any success, if I can have a family and a career… if I even want that at all. The Bell Jar poses new questions for my soul every time I read it, and I wish I could tell Plath, “Thank you for your honesty, courage, and beauty.”
Have you read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath? What was your take on the novel and do you think it still speaks to a modern audience? Remember to share the reading love.