The Bell Jar wasn’t what I expected. Everyone describes it as being a book about a girl who goes crazy. That’s even what the blurb on the cover says. That isn’t what it is though. It’s a coming of age novel like Catcher In the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower except while those books end just as the narrators are breaking down The Bell Jar’s narrator takes you through her breakdown.
At the end of the book I kept thinking about how amazing it is all of us don’t mentally breakdown when we’re going through the transition between childhood and adulthood. Heading into your senior year of high school or college or last year of your master’s program (or whatever is your last hurdle before you launch out on your own) is daunting and for a lot of us it continues to be even after that year. I could sympathize with Esther:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, another fig was a famous poet and another was a brilliant professor…and another was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions…and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
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.”
Simultaneously she feels as if she has no real marketable skills and wouldn’t even be able to grasp one of those figs if she tried. When she eventually stops eating and stops sleeping, because she’s too overwhelmed to try, it almost makes sense. Like how Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation) said sometimes she felt like she was forced to withdraw into depression because it was the only rightful protest in the face of a world without rules and a life that was lawless. I don’t think these emotions are crazy. They almost seem natural.
But The Submarines are right:
Here we are with all the pleasures of the first world
Laid out before us, who are we to breakdown?
Everyday we wake up…
And we try, it’s too easy just to fall apart
Starving is easier than eating and it’s as wasteful of ourselves as of the figs before us. As hard as it can be to make a choice, it’s more rewarding than wasting away. The analogy is also an inaccurate picture of reality even if it reflects our feelings. Ahead of us aren’t prepackaged futures that are mutually exclusive. Life is more dynamic than a fig.
This last year I’ve been learning that. When I decided to attend Fordham’s Master’s program I thought I had grabbed a future in academia. The choice made me nauseas. I couldn’t get passionate about my work in Student Affairs and was so disinterested in the masters students around me I couldn’t bear the idea of having people like them as colleagues. Nor could I stand the idea of my life’s work being so confined and confining. But my choice didn’t condemn me to that future.
Right now I’m assisting a financial planner: helping him make his office more efficient, assisting with general tasks, interacting with clients and learning his industry. On paper it may sound boring but it enlivens me. I love bringing order to chaos and learning new things. Interacting with people as well keeps me sharp and takes me out of my own head in a good way. I’m also about to begin an interesting semester of classes and prepping for a small groupI’ll be leading starting in September. Along with my friends and roommate my life is both full and fulfilling. When I come home from work for the first time in years I’m hungry to read and thirsty to create. I’ve been doing both more voraciously than ever.
I’ve begun to hate when people ask me what I want to do with my life. Not because I don’t have any idea but because I know that we can’t choose predetermined futures off a tree. Insead we are creating our futures through a series of choices. That’s not easy to articulate but it’s the only way to live a fulfilling life. Choosing a perfect picture is neither possible or satisfying. Instead we have to keep choosing what will sustain and nourish us at the times we need to.