The Queer, Sultry Summer

“(I knew something was wrong with me that summer, because all I could think about was the Rosenbergs and how stupid I’d been to buy all those uncomfortable, expensive clothes, hanging limp as fish in my closet, and how all the little successes I’d totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue.)” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

In the Foreword to the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition Frances McCullough argues that as readers we are influenced in our readings of The Bell Jar by the fact that Sylvia Plath’s life ended by suicide. McCullough points out that The Bell Jar “is a very funny book — the intervening twenty-five years give us a good reason to delight in Plath’s amazing humor, a quality she herself thought would make her career as a novelist.”

Somehow I seem to have read The Bell Jar twice in my teens and never noticed anything but tragedy. This is a wonderful example of the need to create our own reading of a work instead of allowing ourselves to be overly influenced by a received reading.

One of the things Plath did so well in The Bell Jar was to show not just the mental health system and her encounters with it, but to illustrate her state of mind so that a reader who has never experienced mental illness can know what it is like. What are your favorite works that go beyond the mental health system and also show what it is like to have altered perceptions?

On Tuesdays, I blog about reading literature for craft insight.

The course Writing Mental Illness is getting spiffed up and will be back on August 14, 2009 in a new format. Go to my class page for more info.


Alison Bergblom Johnson

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