words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Depression

“My nerves often get the better of me: it is especially on Sundays that I feel rotten. The atmosphere is so oppressive, and sleepy and as heavy as lead. You don’t hear a single bird singing outside, and a deadly close silence hangs everywhere, catching hold of me as if it will drag me down deep into an underworld.

At such times Daddy, Mummy, and Margot leave me cold. I wander from one room to another, downstairs and up again, feeling like a songbird whose wings have been clipped and who is hurling himself in utter darkness against the bars of his cage. ‘Go outside, laugh, and take a breath of fresh air,’ a voice cries within me, but I don’t even feel a response any more, I go and lie on the divan and sleep, to make the time pass more quickly, and the stillness and the terrible fear, because there is no way of killing them.”

—from The Diary of Anne Frank on Friday, 29 Oct. 1943

The Bell Jar

Good morning class.

If The Bell Jar is any indication as to what Sylvia Plath’s life was like, she was surrounded by tragedy. She wasn’t a typical tortured artist, if there is such a thing—I imagine that her art would have thrived fantastically without her mental illness. As it is, I believe her art thrived in spite of her troubled mind, not because of it. Even in my own limited experience with mental illness, I’ve never seen psychological turmoil as a gateway to impactful creativity . . . I only see it as a hindrance.

That might be reason enough to read The Bell Jar, which subverts misconceptions about mental illness, women, and the American dream without hesitation. Plath holds nothing back, and it’s painful, powerful reading.

The story follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman with a bright future who begins to suffer from depression. At first it’s mild—inconvenient distresses that affect her life here and there—but it develops into suicidal thoughts and actions. One almost-forgettable moment stands out to me: she sleeps in one morning, innocently enough, because she feels like there’s nothing to look forward to if she gets up. The light from the window shines in, but she buries herself in her sheets and under her pillow, back into the darkness. It’s subtle, but it’s a clear sign of her illness affecting her every moment.

After a suicide attempt, Esther is committed to an institution, where she goes through medication and shock therapy. She describes her condition as being trapped under a bell jar, breathing in the same toxic air every moment of every day, no matter where she is or who she’s with—the bell jar is always there.

The extra layer of her struggle is being a woman in 1950’s America. She goes on dates with men of differing levels of ingrained misogyny. She sees other women around her as reflections of her two extreme options—the perfect do-good lady and the rule-breaker—and only she seems to belong in between. Several people, including her mother, pressure her towards finding a man, settling down, beginning a family . . . and everyone cautions her against sex before marriage, despite the obvious double standard. Esther’s life seems to be one hardship after another, and the 1950’s do her no favors.

Author Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is not light reading. Several times, over multiple chapters, Esther does more than consider suicide in a passing thought. She analyzes the best way to kill herself, and goes through the motions before being interrupted or facing an insurmountable obstacle. At one point, she remarks that her body has “little tricks” that keep her from killing herself, like an internal instinct she has no say over—but if she had the whole say, she’d be dead already. When she actually conquers this instinct, the suicide attempt portrayed on the page is simple and disturbing.

But as graphic as The Bell Jar can be, that’s not the reason to read it—the reason to read it is because of what Plath gets right in the details. The subtleties of depression are portrayed with honesty, and with no grand presentation. To read The Bell Jar is to get a nuanced depiction of a troubled mind.

Next up, I’m reading The Diary of Anne Frank—similarly not-light reading. But I’m excited because I know that it’s no portrayal; her diary, her actual thoughts, convey her life as a young woman in a strange kind of captivity. Her diary did as much for understanding young women as The Bell Jar did, if not more. It’s also not a graphic portrayal of a tragedy; it’s the ups and downs of her life, come as they may, and it’s even more honest than The Bell Jar could hope to be.

But more on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

“Doctor Nolan led me through a door into a fresh, blue-skied air.

All the heat and fear purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.

. . .

How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

—from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up.

I had nothing to look forward to.”

—from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

I knew perfectly well the cars were making noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. This city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for all the good it did me.”

—from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath Book Cover

The Grapes of Wrath Book Cover

Welcome back, class.

The Grapes of Wrath is not a popular book. Very few people I know like it—it’s just too weird. The story is interrupted by short, confusing chapters that have nothing to do with the main characters. Steinbeck’s writing style has this odd repetition to it, which easily annoys anyone already confused. The ending is anticlimactic, detached, morbid, and vague. I have no solution for these issues, because they are issues of taste. If you have to read it, get over it.

If you can do that, what you’ll find is a powerful, moving portrayal of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In my opinion, that’s the reason it made the list.

While I hated The Grapes of Wrath in high school (it lost me as early as the third chapter), the reread showed me two reasons to appreciate it—its connections to The Odyssey, and its carefully created characters.

Apparently, remaking The Odyssey is a common practice in literature. The journey home, the monsters and obstacles on the way, the gods dooming the quest…there are so many ways to adapt the fundamental story, and Steinbeck holds very little back adapting it here. Our hero is Tom Joad, skilled in all ways of contending, recently released from prison. He and his family load up the truck and head west, in search of a new home.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The adaptations of each Odyssean episode are fun to pick out (fun being a relative term). The immature man selling parts, mumbling about his dire situation and his missing eye, is the Cyclops trying to trap the Joad family in his childish pessimism. Another character, complaining about what the country’s coming to, is one of the sirens—Tom says he’s just “singing a kind of song,” and doing nothing about it. Their new home, California, is ripe with dangers like cops trying to push them out and other wanderers taking what scarce employment remains, just like the suitors Odysseus faces when he finally makes it home to Ithaca.

But Steinbeck doesn’t just recycle The OdysseyThe Grapes of Wrath is also an anti-Odyssey, which makes it just as interesting to find connections. Poseidon, god of the sea, tried to destroy Odysseus, but the Joad family faces the Dust Bowl—there is no sea, no water, no replenishment for the Joads. The search for home is just as twisted—the Joads had a home, and they were kicked out. They spend the last half of the novel looking for work, not home. Odysseus’ reunion with his family is mocked here, as the Joad family slowly falls apart from the strain of the quest. The ambiguous ending either supports the Joad’s strength to carry on, or shows a family blown apart by the hardships of 1930s America. This is not the same journey Odysseus faced.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

The story works without noticing the Odyssey connections as well (it’s less fun, but it works), all because of Steinbeck’s realism with the characters. Tom’s grandparents bicker and fumble around like any loving couple would, but are never stereotypes. The children, Ruthie and Winfield, see the world as only children would—they reveal family secrets out of pride for knowing them, make fun of their uncle’s alcoholism by pretending to be drunk, and can’t understand death except as the absence of a person they loved.

Without a doubt, the core relationship in the novel is between Tom and his mother. She is the matriarch keeping the family together, and he is her strength. She’s always loved how he copes with the world, and he is beyond her understanding, but he always comes back. Tom loves her like any son would, and as much as the world pulls him away, she anchors him to what matters. Their final scene finally breaks the family’s quest, and whether or not the Joad family has truly found home is up to the reader to decide.

The Grapes of Wrath is hard to read, and I don’t recommend it for high school students—it’s too confusing, even for adults. But if you have help, reading this book can reveal 1930s American life with stark clarity. It’s messages make sense today, as we face the same sociopolitical problems—homelessness, class discrimination, police brutality, racism, and the flaws of capitalism. It’s a novel worth studying.

In the spirit of the holidays, I’ll get scrooged and read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens next. Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Hamlet: O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

–from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 133-138 by William Shakespeare