Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath

Quote of the Book
“Though Plath did not become famous during her lifetime, she would in the years following her death, as a quasi-cultish audience—the sort that rarely forms around an author, living or dead—bought almost anything written by her. Indeed, in her “second,” and posthumous life it was as if Plath had not died at all” (335).
I chose this as the quote of the book because it shows how even though Sylvia Plath suffered a miserable daunting life, which ultimately ended in a horrible and sudden death – her spirit went on and her existence continued to effect others long after her tragic departure. Her pain and heartache resulted in some of the most renowned and powerful pieces of writing ever. Though her life was unpleasant, her lasting impression on the world and literature overpowers over her suicide.

One connection I see in this novel is the connection between Sylvia Plath and her opposition against being the typical 1950’s housewife. However, even though Sylvia Plath wanted to be a strong, independent woman, her husband tried to force her to fit into the role of a good housewife. He wanted her to perform “normal” womanly duties and resented her when she tried to fight back or stand up for herself. The connection between the typical life of the 1950’s is more clearly shown by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, who was, in essence, the typical 1950’s male chauvinist man. An example of Hughes’s desire for power over his wife is shown by this quote: “Ted had recently humiliated Sylvia in front of Marcia and Mike Plummer; he accused her of refusing to sew buttons on his shirts and of tearing up his worn-out socks. Later, in private, when Sylvia demanded to know why he had degraded her in front of her friends, Ted told her that by scolding her he hoped to force her to perform these minor tasks in the future” (226).
This quote shows how Hughes’s wanted Sylvia to be a good housewife. This is the typical mentality of a husband in the 1950’s. Plath's opposition to his requests show how she wanted to break free of the mold of the typical 1950's housewife.
The other connection that I see is between Sylvia Plath and many people who grow up to be criminals, murderers, or deeply disturbed individuals. Most of these people are the way they are because of events that occurred early in their development. Sylvia Plath lost hope for life at a very young age, after her father died. “Since the children were already upstairs asleep, Aurelia decided to wait until morning to break the news to them. When she told Sylvia, who had been sitting up in bed reading a book, Sylvia blurted out, “I’ll never speak to God again,” and pulled her blanket over her head” (32).
This quote shows how Sylvia Plath’s childhood was very traumatizing and resulted in her losing faith in life and humanity at a very young age, the same mentality that stayed with her throughout the rest of her life. This resulted in her being a very emotionally unstable person. In the end of her life, she was a murderer, even if it was herself that she murdered. Not only did she have the potential and drive to harm herself, occasionally, her anger and frustrations could be released on other people. “The aftershock of the fight lasted for days. As a result of the confrontation, Sylvia understood something disturbing. Under certain circumstances, she could become so violent that she could kill another person, or herself” (219). This quote shows how Plath was violent by nature, which manifested from years of grief. This same idea, that difficult childhoods result in emotionally unstable people is extremely common. One of the most famous and vicious murderers of all time was Charles Manson, who’s childhood involved abandonment from his father, an alcoholic and prostitute mother, and various forms of abuse throughout his childhood.
The final connection I can draw from the biography of Plath’s life is that her most famous piece of writing was a direct relation to her life. Like Esther, Plath excelled in school and was praised for her writing ability. This caused both women to obtain the position of an editor for a woman’s magazine and live in New York. This experience is what caused them to realize that they were different from everyone else, and no matter what circumstance they were in, they could never be happy. “Moreover, she had been traumatized by her month in New York. There had been all these girls who had been encouraged to use a more affective part of themselves than she had been encouraged to use—and yet what she saw was a low-level, stereotypical, superficial version of that. This left her with no place to go” (130). This quote explains how Plath became lost and confused when she lived in New York because she could not relate to the other women. She believed they were too superficial, which is the exact belief that Esther held in The Bell Jar. This sent them both into a deep depression, which caused Esther to have a suicide attempt, and Plath to simply fall deeper into depression which, later in her life, resulted in her suicide.

Visual representation

I chose this picture as the visual representation of this book because the main thing that her life is remembered for is the fact that it ended with suicide. Most people know little else about her besides this, and the fact that she died in this way is probably what brought her even more fame and made her writing even more powerful. Her death was a result of everything that happened in her life and explains the gravity of her work. Also, the quote on her grave represents the fact that though her life was full of disasters and catastrophes, represented by the fierce flames, and her lasting impact and radiance on the world is represented by the golden lotus.

What role did religion/spirituality play in Plath’s life?
Was the majority of Sylvia Plath’s depression due to a mental illness or due to her life events?
Would most people consider Sylvia Plath to be a feminist?
Was her suicide due to one or a couple of events in particular or an accumulation of everything that had occurred in her life?

I found this biography on Sylvia Plath to be very fascinating. Paul Alexander had a very clear understanding of Plath’s life from multiple points of view – which is due to the fact that he interviewed over 200 people in the process of writing this biography. The novel does not only account her personal struggles that led to her self destruction but also clearly describes all other aspects and relationships that resulted in her depression. I also like how the novel if a purely objective account and tells of everything from her family history, to her childhood, adolescene, and adulthood. This book helped me better understand Slvia Plath and who she really was: a loving mother, a fierce lover and companion, and a deeply brilliant woman. This novel left me with a sense of compassion for Plath and a complete understanding for her writing.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

Quote of the Book – “In a sense, these poems are deflections. I do not think they are an escape. For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time – the hurt and the wonder of loving, making in all its forms – children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings, and the conversation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no abstract doubletalk of “peace” or “implacable foes” can excuse” (65). I chose this excerpt as the quote of the book because it describes everything that Sylvia Plath writes, in her essays, journals, and short stories which are all included in this book. The stories are not crazy or unrealistic. They are all stories that genuinely reflect human life and the joy, sadness, anger, and hope that it brings. This quote is also significant because even though Sylvia Plath lived in a very different time period, everything she writes is completely applicable to modern day life. She writes about the little things that make up our lives, such as love, birth, and death. The stories focus on real things that really happen to people, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. They are real and honest, and no extra fluff is added.
Through her writing, Sylvia Plath portrays the sense that she is a deeply disturbed and depressed individual, which are both common traits in immensely talented and creative people. Some examples of these types of people are Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Van Gough, and Edgar Allen Poe. These people are all world-renowned for their creativity and insight, and they all experienced mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or depression. Sylvia Plath is able to describe her passion for creativity and imagination in this quote: “What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination… if I sit still and don’t do anything, the world goes on beating like a slack drum, without meaning. We must be moving. Working, making dreams to run toward; the poverty of life without dreams is too horrible to imagine” (62). This represents the drive to be imaginative and creative that Sylvia Plath possessed, which relates to most other famous artists or writers. Another quote that Sylvia Plath says is this:
"I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between” (82).
This quote represents how Sylvia Plath is a very emotionally unstable person, she is either very sad or very happy and she can never seem to find a balance, which, as I previously stated, relates to many particularly artistic and creative people.

The namesake story of this book – Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams – reminds me of the familiar story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, from the bible. In the story of Johnny Panic, the main character, a nameless young lady, has a special calling for dreams. Her job is to listen to people’s dreams and write them down and interpret them. “Dream by dream I am educating myself to become that rare character, rarer, in truth, than any member of the Psycho-analytic Institute, a dream connoisseur” (157). This quote shows how she is simply fascinated by dreams and devotes her whole life to them. In the story of Joseph, his life is changed because he is able to predict the future through his dreams. Both people are alike because they are greatly impacted and fascinated with dreams, which gains them recognition.
Another quote that I can relate with is from her essay about growing up in America. “In those days I couldn’t have told a fruited plane from a mountain majesty and confused God with George Washington, yet warbled, nevertheless, with my small, snooty compatriots “America, America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea” (54). I can relate to this quote because growing up we were pushed to be “proud Americans”, before we even knew what it meant to be an American. We were forced to recite The Pledge of Allegiance everyday without knowing a word of its meaning. Nobody ever explained it to us; we didn’t really have an understanding of American history or how we got there. We saw images of famous Americans, from anywhere on our dollar bills to images of Mount Rushmore, but we never really knew who they were. And even now, I’m not entirely sure that I’m “proud to be an American”, even though that’s always what I’ve been taught to think. A lot of us have this view that America is the greatest without having any perspectives or understandings any other ways of living.

Visual Representation I chose this picture for a visual representation because the ocean is one theme that stood out to my in these pieces of writing. The ocean is the one thing that Sylvia Plath has a deep admiration for no matter what. It’s her safe, lovely place. Her greatest dreams and desires involve her love for the ocean. Growing up at the seaside, the ocean was deeply rooted into her being and when she left the ocean she lost a part of herself. Her love of the ocean is shown by this quote: “And this is how it stiffens, my vision of that seaside childhood. My father died, we moved inland. Whereon those fine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle – beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.” (27).
The ocean is portrayed in her fictional stories as an object of desire. “How often she and Jacob had promised themselves the legendary cottage by the sea, far from the city’s petrol fumes and smoky railroad yards—a garden, a hill, a cove for Jill to explore, an unhurried, deeply savored peace!” (81). This quote shows how in many different stories Plath uses the sea as an item of desire and admiration.

Is every fictional story that Sylvia Plath writes inspired by her real life?
What is the significance of the character Esther, since she reappears in so many of the stories?
In the stories, it seems like Europe is portrayed as a sad place and America as a hopeful and exciting, yet conceited place. Is this irony, or does she honestly feel that way about each country?

Many people consider Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams to be a very minor piece of writing when compared to her other books and poems. Sylvia Plath was simply not as skilled at writing short stories as she was at writing poetry. I would definitely agree that the writing in this novel was not anything compared to The Bell Jar, however, I enjoyed it because it gave me more of a sense of who she was and how much she’s grown. It showed me that she doesn’t only write amazing pieces of work every time. It takes a lot of growth and revision, and these stories seem to be just her first, initial ideas. If I had not known of Sylvia Plath or read other of her books, I would not have been as impressed by this collection of writing. While some of the writing was very profound and impactful, some of the stories are very ordinary and at times boring. However, I even appreciated the “boring” parts because Plath has a way of turning the ordinary into something deep and exciting. All the stories and essays in this book gave me a lot of insight into her life and way of thinking, so I am very glad I read it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Bell Jar

Quote of the book: " Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo" (3).
This is the quote of the book because it perfectly represents her feeling towards her life. No matter what kind of life she is living, it is never good enough. Most people admire her life because outwardly, she has a wonderful, desirable life. She is successful and lucky. She works at a great company, is very privileged, makes a lot of money, and has lots of friends. Though she realizes that she has all of this, she feels disconnected with it. She doesn't believe she is talented or worthy of it in any way. She cannot enjoy her job and life the way the other girls she works with do. She grows to hate New York because it is so busy and confusing and superficial. She has expectations to be happy and enjoy herself but she cannot. This launches her into an even deeper depression, where she feels empty and alone.

Connections: This book reminds me a lot of the memoir I read called "Prozac Nation". Both women have feelings of depression that they simply cannot understand, because they both have a pretty good life from the outside. They both live in New York, are successful with their writing careers, have many friends, family members who care about them, etc. It makes them both even more upset when they realize that even though they should be happy, and have no reasons not to be, they cannot. They both get so depressed that they attempt suicide but both survive and somewhat overcome their depression.

This book relates to my own life in a way because I feel like I don't appreciate everything I am given either. Though it seems I have everything, a great family, amazing friends, a wonderful school, and all the opportunities to do well in my life I am not always completely happy and successful. When I think about the torture, abuse, and death that other people have to endure it makes me so angry at myself that I am not always happy and grateful.

Sylvia Plath's novel relates a lot to American society as a whole. Though it seems like as American's, we are all very privileged, an estimated twelve million American's suffer from depression. This book perfectly represents a large portion of our society, who is outwardly lucky but is inwardly sad and depressed.

Visual Representation:

Though this picture seems like the obvious picture to use for the book, it actually has quite a significant symbolic meaning. A bell jar is a bell-shaped glass that is used to protect delicate objects, usually of scientific apparatuses, and containing gas. Esther feels like she is inside of a bell jar because she feels trapped in an airless enclosure where she can't connect with the world around her. The bell jar is always with her, and she is either consumed underneath it or watching as it hovers above her, threatening to drop over her.

Some questions I considered while reading the book were these:
What role does the time period she was living in (1950's) affect the way she feels during her life?
What role do relationships play in Esther's life (with men, with her parents, etc)?
Is the ending of the novel hopeful or hopeless?
Are her insecurities about herself true, or imagined?
Was it a certain events or events that triggered her depression, or was it an inevitable, gradual decent into depression?

Though usually I don't particularly enjoy most "classic novels" because of the old writing style that is hard to relate to, The Bell Jar was a definite exception. The novel had a very contemporary writing style despite being written in the 1960's. It was also very relatable, because mental illness is something that stays the same no matter how much time goes by. The book is so believable because it is based of Plath's own feelings and her own life. Even if you have never dealt with depression, you can still completely relate to the emotions she is feeling. Sylvia Plath also has a wonderful writing style, perfectly balancing humor and satire with harrowing misery. The only criticism for this novel that I can come up with is that you have to understand that it is a dark, miserable, gloomy novel, and if you don't have an open mind Esther can be hard to understand because she is so consumed by depression. Also, there isn't really one main event, but rather a gradual progression of events. Personally, however, I loved every part of this book.