May 9, 2015

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood is my Holden Caufield. Forget "The Catcher in the Rye;" I have never read a book that speaks so perfectly to me and with which I feel such connection. Nineteen years old and wickedly book smart, Esther is spending a month in New York City as a scholarship winner interning at a magazine. Years of straight As have led her to this point where she feels the tug of freedom for the first time. It proves disastrous. Faced with an infinitely wider world than the one of books and papers she is used to, Esther quickly loses her certainty about what she wants to be and who she is, then descends into a dark depression, complete with suicide attempts and shock treatments.

Esther and I are cut from the same cloth, and it's worth quoting one passage at length that touched me profoundly:

"From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked... 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."

I call this the Paralysis of Opportunity, and it's a common problem for smart, middle-class young people. There are many things we would be good at, and probably we would be happy doing several of them. But which one would make us happiest? How can we possibly choose what we want to do when we don't know whether it will provide the best outcome? Is it really any better to exert oneself and work hard at something only to find you don't like it than to simply waffle between options forever? I know Esther's indecision, I know that feeling of worthlessness upon realizing all your As matter not a single bit in the real world. Minus the suicide attempts and shock therapy, Esther is me. What an astounding thing it is, to pick up a book and find yourself in it.

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