Friday, October 23, 2009

The Man Of the Hour



"This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. 'To keep your head,' wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem 'If,' which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, 'when all about you are losing theirs'; but in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh, shit! (Chabon 129)"

The above passage does wonders for me. The cultural and genetic aspects of masculinity have long been of interest to me, both in studies and in the writing of my own fiction. Re-read it, and you very well may see some glaze of the cliche of "being a man," as well as the undercurrent of many a tired stand-up comic's jokes. However, on the sheer strength of his writing style, Michael Chabon renders a part of masculinity utterly unique, even though it's been shared by every man at times. With crisp writing, honesty, and a well-placed citation, he's elevated what could very well have been blatantly obvious in lesser hands.

I recently finished reading his latest essay collection, Manhood For Amateurs. During the course of the reading, it struck me that, despite his staggering publication resume, I've never read any of Mr. Chabon's non-fiction. I've read two of his novels and one of his story collections, and despite having some catching up to do with his complete bibliography, I've long counted him as one of my favorites. Happily, this collection reaffirmed this, and elevated him (in my personal views) among the champions of fiction and non-fiction, being able to create stunning paragraphs, "real" or otherwise. In addition, the collection has masculinity as its central theme, even if not every essay deals with it explicitly.

In recent years, it seems as if the book world has been staggered with the weight of both memoirs, "books for men," or a combination of the two. While both of these genres, like any, have the potential for thought-provoking results, a lot of the efforts have been lacking. The memoir genre seems (as of late) to be heavy on a sort of "this is how messed up my life is" theme. Of course, there's no such thing as a spotless life or one with no regrets or mistakes, but a lot of memoirs seem to serve as "fly on the wall porn," not unlike describing the Saw films as "torture porn." Books that are aimed at men have a tendency to offer horrible stereotypes, fratboy-esque debauchery, and an underlying misogyny (Tucker Max comes to mind). Yes, these criticisms may seem a bit uptight, but Chabon's writings prove that personal essays can discuss masculinity, sexuality, and drug use in an intelligent manner, retaining all aspects of quote/unquote manliness and not making the writer come out looking like a pig.

Chabon tackles the usual topics--marriage, youth, and fatherhood--but gives them all a colorful spin, even if the only light that's shed upon the topics are for his own growth and personality. It's a nod to his strengths as a writer that he can make the most mundane occurrences feel vibrant. It also helps that, even when taking on a philosophical hypothesis, he can be hysterically funny without distracting from the subject at hand. For example, in the essay "The Memory Hole," he writes about the act of a parent throwing away a young child's artwork:

"Do I care? Does it pain me to have lost forever this irrefutable evidence of my having been, if neither a prodigy nor an embryonic Matisse, a child? If my mother had held on to more of my childhood artwork, would I be happier now? Would the narrative that I have constructed of the nature and course of my childhood be more complete? I guess ultimately, I have no way of answering these questions. It's like wondering whether sex would be more pleasurable if I had not been worked over by that old Jew with a knife at the age of eight days. How much more pleasurable, really, do I need it to be (38)?"

In addition to his writing prowess, Chabon is also a gifted vocal interpreter of his own essays. Two nights ago, I had the good fortune to see him read two of the essays at Chicago's Harold Washington Library. His timing, enunciation, and inflections provided not only humor to the funny parts of "The Cut" (about his son's circumcision) and "Like, Cosmic" (a wonderful narrative of space travel, the passage of time, and ultimately, masculinity) but somber reflection on the central themes of these works. His reading highlighted quite a few parts that I had missed in my intial reading, as well as highlighting his gift of craft. His prose is almost musical, and even if a given passage is embellished with grand metaphors, not a word feels out of place or overused. Despite being behind on quite a few of the notable books that have been published this year, I can say, with full conviction, that Manhood For Amateurs is one of the best books of 2009.

Work Cited:
Chabon, Michael. Manhood For Amateurs. Copyright 2009 by Michael Chabon.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Various Souls of Literature



For the past two weeks, I've been devoting a substantial amount of time to the Milan Kundera essays that make up his 2005 book The Curtain. However, I should add that I finished reading it a few days into those two weeks. As I make halting, delayed progress on reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I've also been looking for shorter books to accompany that project. To be more specific, even though I need to be fully devoted to Wallace's masterpiece, in the interest of this blog and my personal studies, it's hard to give my all to just one book over the course of many weeks. This has led to a contradiction of sorts. Instead of setting a definite schedule for Infinite Jest, immersing myself in the complex novel, I've immersed myself in a slim book of theory about the novel as a whole. This is not a bad thing. The problem is that Kundera's musings on literature rely heavily on outside sources and novels, making it difficult to find passages to cite for a general overview. This leads to multiple readings of the same passages, time that could be put towards Mr. Wallace's book and my goal to finish it by the end of October (not very likely).

In college, I read some selected passages from another Kundera essay collection, The Art Of the Novel. No, one should never judge a book by the cover, but with these non-fiction works by Kundera, this is almost impossible, and I end up judging the books in the best of ways. An essay collection by an international master, accompanied by visually striking cover paintings? Aesthetically, it's hard for me to resist. Much like Italo Calvino, Kundera's works are marked by an intelligent optimism about the benefits, joys, and the ultimate future of the novel. This is evident even as he defends an author like Gustave Flaubert, who in his time was criticized for a lack of "goodness" in his works.

"But, memories aside, is it really so inappropriate for the most prestigious French critic [Sainte-Beuve] of his time to exhort a young writer to 'uplift' and 'console' his readers by 'a picture of goodness,' readers who deserve, as do we all, a little sympathy and encouragement?...Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire. He does not write his novels to communicate his judgements to readers. He is after something entirely different: 'I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things' (Kundera 59-60)."

Even though he's discussing a nineteenth century writer, I was struck by how Kundera's analysis could be applied (both ways) to two other books that I've written about here. Given that "the soul of things" means showing the bad without judgement, a modern example could be Roberto Bolano's 2666. That work depicts, in a few hundred grisly detailed pages, the murders and rapes of women in Mexico. As gruesome as they are, there's an unspoken, undeniable "soul" of the people who are either involved or implicated in those crimes. Bolano felt no need to balance these with obvious "opposites," i.e. goodness for the sake of counteracting the badness. Flaubert's critic would likely have been a fan of Jose Saramago. In Blindness, there's a definite feeling of Saramago giving the good and the bad an equal billing, with goodness poised to win in the end. This is not at all a criticism of Saramago's novel, but merely an example of the critic's argument.

Towards the end of The Curtain, Kundera examines a part of reading a novel, one that should be obvious at first, but rather shapes a fascinating realization.

"The novel, on the other hand, is a very poorly fortified castle. If I take an hour to read twenty pages, a novel of four hundred pages will take me twenty hours, thus about a week. Rarely do we have a whole week free. It is more likely that, between sessions of reading, intervals of several days will occur, during which forgetting will immediately set up its worksite. But it is not only in the intervals that forgetting does its work; it participates in the reading continuously, with never a moment's lapse; turning the page, I already forget what I just read; I retain only a kind of summary indispensable for understanding what is to follow, but all the details, the small observations, the admirable phrasings are already gone. Erased. Someday, years later, I will start to talk about this novel to a friend, and we will find that our memories have retained only a few shreds of the text and have reconstructed very different books for each of us (149-150)."

This notion of forgetting was evident as I re-read various passages of this book in preparation for this post. Some of Kundera's ideas were familiar as I read them a second or a third time, but a few of them felt new or different, even though I knew that I had encountered them at least once before. I like to consider myself a studious reader, but even Kundera himself admits to the forgetfulness that plagues all readers. Sometimes, if I find myself glazing over a page, I snap myself out of the trance and go back a few pages; more often than not, I realize that I've missed essential passages, or I've read them in a vastly different context. This makes Flaubert's notion of "the soul of things" much more accurate. When it comes to books, with the exception of some brilliant lines or self-highlighted passages, we retain only a rough outline of the plot and the meaning. Soul encompasses all of the small and finite details, even if as readers, they've been unintentionally lost or overlooked; they're still there.

I hope to get much more out of this theory in the near future, as I get into some of Kundera's actual novels as opposed to books on novels. This also refreshes my resolve to finish Infinite Jest, especially with the onset of forgetfulness; I need to keep reading it, despite time constraints, in order to retain its details, and ultimately, its soul.

Work Cited:
Kundera, Milan. The Curtain: An Essay In Seven Parts. Copyright 2005 by Milan Kundera. Translation copyright 2006 by Linda Asher.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

2005 In Music: Recap

More updates from the Aught Music side project. The song updates for 2006 are being posted almost daily, with excellent writings on old favorites and overlooked gems. Here is another compilation of the songs and write-ups I submitted, this time for 2005. If you'd like to contribute, contact Jeremy via the link above. Just like last time, click the links below for a (free) listen.

1.) "Girl" by Beck (From the album Guero)

Even if Beck didn't reference "my summer girl," this would still be a great summer song. The production by the Dust Brothers is pitch-perfect, and Beck seems to be blending three very distinct genres—soul, electronica, and an atmosphere of 1960s beach songs—into one terrific track. It's also wonderfully evocative of late teens/early twenties love in any city on a sweltering summer day. However, just one thing might cause some confusion:

Walking crooked down the beach She spits on the sand...

In all honesty, he doesn't paint the picture of the most attractive girl in the world. However, this only adds some gritty realism to the song. Imperfect though she might be, she definitely doesn't give a fuck what anybody else thinks, and given the person and the situation, that can be pretty attractive.

2.) "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens (From the album Illinoise)

"John Wayne Gacy, Jr.":

No matter what year, I cannot think of any other song as beautiful and literally haunting. This brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Stevens crafts a look at a serial killer with none of the obvious expectations. He hints at Gacy's childhood, the accident that may have been one of the factors in his later killing spree, some of the personality traits that people admired in him, and his deadly legacy. The part that gets me the most is the look at his victims:

Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs
Oh my god.


I'm getting chills listening to this right now. There's no overt sympathy and no overt judgement. It's a painting of a distinct personality, one who killed twenty-seven people. Stevens' "fifty states project" is only two albums deep, but there's a wealth of history and meticulous detail. He takes the bad with the good in Illinois history, as evident with this track.

"Chicago":

This has an initial vote for one of my favorite songs of all time. This is a city anthem that doesn't mention any specifics of the area, and even mentions another state, New York. It's a reflection on youth, road trips, friendship, and coming to terms with past mishaps. These mishaps and mistakes are not mentioned specifically, but one can only imagine that they're the tyical blunders associated with being young. However, this the ultimate anthem to the city of Chicago, even though the emotions can be reflective of any major city. The vocal chorus towards the end of the song is achingly beautiful. Stevens is the ultimate musician, combining beautiful melodies and evocative lyrics, and this is one of the highlights of the decade. There is no hyberbole here; just listen.

3.) "The Sound of German Hip-Hop" by Clem Snide (From the album The End of Love)

I bought The End Of Love on a complete whim after hearing a co-worker talk enthusiastically about the merits of Clem Snide. After just one listen, I was in complete agreement, at least regarding this album. I love Eef Barzelay's voice, and the lyrics are almost begging for any kind of interpretation. They go all over the place, a sort of poetic stream of consciousness. There's really not much to add. It works perfectly, and it's just a beautiful song.

4.) "You're the Reason I'm Leaving" by Franz Ferdinand (From the album You Could Have It So Much Better)

Wow. The more I give hard listens to Franz Ferdinand, the more I realize how deceptive their music can be at times. At the start, this is a terrific, rocking kiss-off. The person from whose point of view the song is sung is letting someone go, but with no remorse or reasons. This is a definite power play, but the chinks in the armor show as the song progresses. It's almost unnerving (not to mention unstable) that someone is gleefully singing about the prospect of commiting suicide if the relationship keeps going another four years. But at the end, everything is flipped around:

I'm the reason you're leaving (Leaving alone)
If we're leaving we don't stop livin', you know


So what's going on here? Was our narrator putting up a facade when in fact he/she was the one being dumped? Did the love interest realize how horribly he/she was going to be let down and decided to do it first? Is this the entire situation being played out in someone's head as a sort of hypothetical situation? I'm almost going into Chuck Klosterman-esque analysis. You be the judge.

5.) "Anytime" and "Off the Record" by My Morning Jacket (From the album Z)

"Anytime":

The opening strains of this song always excite me, no matter how many times I hear it, because I know what's coming. I cannot understand why Jim James isn't considered one of the best singers in music today. Is there any voice that could work better on this track? My favorite part is actually one that can be easily missed. Listen to the opening line—"Is this climbing up to the moon?" With both the studio recording and the live versions (the audio file is actually taken from the 2006 live disc Okonokos), James' voice always tends to crack and drag out the word 'to' for just a split second longer than normal, and for some reason, I always focus on that. His voice isn't perfect, it lilts a little, but he's obviously pouring himself into every word. That one little crack always makes me smile.

"Off the Record":

This song is phenomenal, because the focus is on the music and the emotion. As with "Anytime," James' voice isn't perfect, and at times, the lyrics are downright unintelligible. However, he doesn't dominate at all; the entire band is both in harmony yet distinct, from the bass to the drumming. I've also picked the live version for the audio file because it's a longer version than the studio one, and it combines the best of both worlds: it's definitely their song, but in the middle, it turns into what feels like a jam session or an improv experiment. However, this only adds to the beauty.

6.) "At the Bottom Of Everything" by Bright Eyes (From the album I'm Wide Awake It's Morning)

Conor Oberst is one of those artists whom, even though I love his music, I can totally appreciate and understand someone NOT liking him. The opening track off of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning represents Oberst at his best (or worst, if you share the opposing sentiment). First and foremost, he's a poet, and the lyrics following the spoken word introduction are beautiful and scary.

While my mother waters plants
My father loads his gun
Says "Death will give us back to God
Just like the setting sun"


The beauty of this song is that his lyrics cover such a vast scope of ideas and metaphor, everything from family to the "American Dream," yet everything fits comfortably under the same musical umbrella. As inventive as he is, nothing seems too far-fetched, and the music is so captivating that by the end, the idea of plunging into a metaphorical cavern feels entirely plausible.

7.) "I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon (From the album Gimme Fiction)

I turn my camera on
I cut my fingers on the way


Can any band claim to sound any sexier in a non-love song situation? Methinks not. The beat of the song makes for unavoidable strutting when listened to while walking, and while "I Turn My Camera On" was almost overplayed, it never loses its freshness.

This particular track comes off of an album that, from top to bottom, doesn't have a bad song available. However, it wins thanks to a special memory. A few years back, I was living with my best friend, and one evening after a rough day, he came into the apartment, wordless, and visibly tired and pissed off. He sat on the living room floor and began to re-string his guitar. On a whim, I put Gimme Fiction on, and by the time "I Turn My Camera On" played, he was bouncing his head to the music in much better spirits. Such is the power of a phenomenal track.

8.) "Tymps (The Sick In the Head Song)" by Fiona Apple (From the album Exraordinary Machine)

Given the complexities and intelligence in Fiona Apple's lyrics, I'm sure that a thousand different people have interpreted this song in many different ways. I like my own spin on the song. In interviews, Apple has explained her fierce independence in relationships as well as her creativity. I don't have an exact quote available, but she commented on even maintaining two seperate houses if she ever got married. Here's a sample lyric:

So why did I kiss him so hard
late last Friday night
Keep on letting him change all my plans
I'm either sick in the head
I need to be bled dry to quit
Or I just really used to love him
I sure hope that's it.


For some reason, I find it comforting that anyone, especially someone as honest and authentic as Apple, can completely relapse on his/her independence based on a strong attraction for the wrong person. We've all pined for someone whom we knew wasn't right deep down, and we all have (or would have) kissed said person with just as much fervor. It doesn't matter how intelligent we are...lust wins sometimes.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Defining the Impossible



At one point in the performance of Eugene Ionesco's The New Tenant, one of the movers (Erica Barnes) begins an exaggerated, funny, and defiant vocalization of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." She's tired, sweaty, and overworked, having spent all of her time assembling a myriad of objects into a formerly vacant apartment. The apartment is now overrun with furniture, knick-knacks, boxes, and an accumulation of a lifetime's worth of objects. The movers (Barnes and Amanda Lucas) are dedicated, yet clearly unnerved by the demands and focus of the tenant (Stephanie Brown). The musical interlude provides some much-needed laughter to counteract with the tension, but for me, it provided a clear definition of the undefinable: namely, the emotions and actions that sum up the Theater Of the Absurd, of which Ionesco (1909-1994) was a major contributor. The song is naturally jaunty and light, but the mover inflects it with stress and confusion, even though she's singing it to fend off the exhaustion. As vague as human nature as a subject can be, it's rife with contradictions, and this performance highlights the absurd both literally and metaphorically.

Blank Line Collective kicks off their fall season with a major challenge, performing the Chicago premiere of Ionesco's The New Tenant. Milan Kundera once wrote of Ionesco (along with Samuel Beckett): "How many dramatists of the past century have had such power, influence? One? Two?" An appraisal of this magnitude offers two observations. One, how is it possible that this piece has gone unperformed for so long, in one of the country's most prolific theater cities? Two, such a gem is vital for the creative side of a small company. This particular play demands a lot from its actors, not just in historical stature, but in the performances, which are written with the intentional possibility to be over-acted to the point of absurdity, and not in a good way.

The play opens with a building caretaker (Jen Sava-Ryan) meeting the new tenant, who has arrived earlier than expected. The tenant is dressed in black, uptight with a sense of decorum, and oblivious to the hilarious, gossipy ramblings of the seemingly lonely caretaker. As the tenant takes notes on the state of the new apartment, the caretaker gives a virtually non-stop monologue on the inhabitants, both past and present. There's a loud police officer who lives upstairs, and the previous tenants were prone to domestic violence. The caretaker knows everything, but claims to not pry into anyone's private lives, even though she blatantly gives off the vibe of someone who listens through walls with a drinking glass pressed against the door. For anyone unfamiliar with the Theater of the Absurd, this is a wise opening; one would expect that The New Tenant would be a standard, two-act play that's heavy on dialogue. However, once the movers show up, absurdity and surrealism take over, along with the aforementioned contradictions.

The movers know exactly what to do, but are given constant directions and orders by the tenant. She allows them to place some objects wherever they want, but for the most part has a strict order that she wants to follow. The bulk of the play revolves around the dizzying amount of objects that fill up the apartment. There are boxes, a mattress, paintings, a large camping tent, chairs, and lamps. In the middle of this move, the movers are given a quick break, monitored by a cooking timer. This, along with the final scene, are the only real moments of calm that permeate the entire piece. It allows the movers to rest, but it's also a rest for the audience, a small chance to process the speed of which everything has accumulated. The tenant and the movers have a very strict relationship based on the job at hand, but one cannot help but wonder if there's more below the surface. The movers shoot each other the occasional exasperated looks, as if they've known the tenant's eccentricities all along, bracing each other for what could happen next. The final scene is somber and unexpected, yet seems to make perfect sense in context. Most importantly, it just adds more intended questions to the poetry of the movements, and the absurdity of life's actions. As Barnes said after the show, "when you think about it, moving is absurd." This might seem almost too easy of an explanation, but given the play and the movement from which it came, this definition works.

The performances are almost reserved in spite of the kinetic pacing. Barnes and Lucas play the movers with an air of comedy, complete with almost slapstick movements and exaggerated determination. This is not a knock against them, since the characters are given no time to react in between their given tasks. Their eyes and facial expressions are giveaways, since they see something either wrong or amiss below the surface of the tenant's expectations. Stephanie Brown's performance is the center of the play, an almost uncomfortable calm in between the accumulation of materials. She plays the tenant with an almost minimalist tint, her cold eyes taking constant mental notes, her perfect posture never wavering, and a wealth of emotion portrayed with a stare or a purse of her lips. Jen Sava-Ryan's portrayal of the caretaker is intriguing, the kind of role that seems to be a constant in many of the productions I've seen. She's needy and scattered, and works as an excellent foil to the tenant. They act as opposites, but from the first moment, they have each other figured out to a tee, even though their private opinions of each other are probably not savory.

Without giving anything away, there is a slight element of audience participation in this performance, which made me slightly skeptical at first. There's only so much breaking of the fourth wall that can be done without it becoming a distraction from the performance, but this interaction is kept to a minimum and works well. Overall, this is an excellent production, but I felt it would have benefited from a slightly slower pace. Yes, there's an energy that needs to be maintained, not to mention the wealth of materials that need to fill the apartment in little time. The fleeting moments of serenity highlight the metaphysical nature and questions of the play's theme, and one or two more "breaks" would have helped to let the audience catch up, mentally. However, the questions that people will have after the performance are the best kinds, and they will likely center around that most impossible, vague query:

"What does it all mean?"

Blank Line Collective's performance of The New Tenant runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of October. 8:00pm, 1803 W. Byron, Unit #104, Chicago, IL. Click here for more information, or call 773.325.2119.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sylvia Plath and the American Dream



Finding an essay topic for a book like The Bell Jar is not unlike the old holiday slogan "What do you get for the person who has everything?" There are so many avenues, all of which have been traveled many times over. However, there's always the strong possibility of finding a new spin, or a new strain on an already analyzed topic. Also, there's the exciting prospect of discovering a new theme that may have been overlooked for many years; perhaps something has been lost in the mix. I'm not at all saying that this look will be said discovery, but that's part of the beauty of great literature. When it comes to topics in The Bell Jar, there are plenty to choose from--feminism, depression, quarter-life crises, suicide, and even a brief mention of lesbianism. Another spin on the daunting task of examining Sylvia Plath's writing is that, strictly in the realm of her sole novel, everything is available on the pages at first glance. This is not a knock against her writing style; far from it. Her metaphors are evocative, yet explicitly deployed. The title of the novel is the obvious one, but there are others. A beautiful (yet heart-wrenching) example is the fig tree. As the protagonist Esther Greenwood explains:

"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, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out (Plath 77)."

Esther is a champion, not of the lady crew variety, but of independence and feminist ideals. As Frances McCullough explains in her 1996 introduction to The Bell Jar, "When I asked an informal focus group of bright young women in their twenties what they thought about the book, they were unanimous: they loved it." These are essential and unequivocal understandings of this work. However, as I read it, I couldn't help but notice how Esther Greenwood's independence and ideals translated to a sort of resistance of the American Dream mystique. Yes, she entertains the idea of settling down, but for every flirtation with that, she states, with much more conviction, that she doesn't want to get married or have children. Returning to my earlier suggestion of varying strains on well-documented theses, I could also make a strong case that Sylvia Plath wrote a possibly unintentional companion to the Beat novels, especially given Esther's desire to feed her experiences to in turn feed her creative voice. However, my primary argument is that Esther's resistance is not just feminism, but a rejection of postwar American wants. As Esther interns at a fashion magazine, we're immediately treated to her keen awareness and superior intelligence to everyone around her. As the above quote shows, she's focusing on doing what she wants (despite not knowing exactly what that means), and not just trying to land a decent husband. The novel opens on a curious note:

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers (1)."

Perhaps this is stretching an idea too thin, since this opening showcases her mentality and offers some blatant foreshadowing to the rest of the work. Also, there's an excellent chance that the reference also helps to put the context of time in place immediately. However, the reference to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg strikes me as daring. The Bell Jar wasn't published in the United States until after Plath's suicide, but imagine that it had been available immediately. This simple phrase could have very well elicited harsh responses for any perceived sympathy to the Rosenbergs. The era was pre-Vietnam, when any domestic criticism of U.S. actions was deemed virtually blasphemous. She goes on to admit that she's spent a great amount of time thinking about the couple, and while this is primarily out of morbid curiosity, it's worth noting that this intelligent character is putting a physical, human face on an event that many Americans at the time would have simply dismissed as "the right thing to do."

"After that--in spite of the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons and the water-color lessons and the dancing lessons and the sailing camp, all of which my mother scrimped to give me, and college, with crewing in the mist before breakfast and blackbottom pies and the little new firecrackers of ideas going off every day--I had never been really happy again (77)."

Here, Esther gives evidence to her state of mind being developed very early. Also, it's an honest dismissal of what some would deem a "nostalgic childhood." Again, there are some very American examples at play, namely Girl Scouts and summer camps, which in the 1950s and 60s were considered foundations. Adding feminism to the mix, it's very possible that people at the time would have considered it dangerous and unhealthy for a woman to not be finding happiness in the pursuit of "the good life" or a "normal childhood." This also shows how national and sociological ideals can be very intertwined. Esther's critiques can be viewed strictly as feminism; they can be viewed as a fight to what her environment expects of her; or they be laced together.

I'm intentionally not mentioning the heavy autobiographical elements that Plath used. This is partly because I only know a very basic outline of her life, and I'm attempting to show the possible interpretations on their own. I'm leaving out glaring examples of what makes The Bell Jar such a classic. Esther's depression is universal and completely separate from any links to sociological hypotheses:

"...because wherever I sat--on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok--I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air (185)."

It's truly amazing how hysterically funny Plath's writing can be, especially when woven into passages of extreme distress and cringe-inducing moments. This shows how Esther, even plunged into a world of psychiatrists and electroshock treatments, still maintains her true composure, not losing any of her intelligence, even if her intensely moving mind led her into her internal downfall. I'm closing with one terrific passage that seems to highlight most of the themes, from the universal to the hypothesized.

"On a low coffee table, with circular and semicircular stains bitten into the dark veneer, lay a few wilted numbers of Time and Life. I flipped to the middle of the nearest magazine. The face of Eisenhower beamed up at me, bald and blank as the face of a fetus in a bottle (89)."

Work Cited:
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Copyright 1971 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.