4,0 sur 5 étoiles
Transcends its flaws...
Commenté aux États-Unis 🇺🇸 le 28 janvier 2016
I read this book almost a year ago now and I am just now getting around to writing my review. Luckily, I took some notes but it is still not super fresh in my memory, so I apologize for that, though, perhaps, I have a little more perspective on it now (that is what I am going to claim anyway). My overall impression of the book was of a somewhat flawed novel (more on the flaws later), but also a novel that transcends its flaws, to some degree at least, through raw emotional power. It may not be polished, or accomplished, or refined enough for the likes of a Harold Bloom (I hate Harold Bloom, by the way), but it is primal, and it is beautiful in the same way that a scream is sometimes more beautiful and powerful than the most refined poetry. The novel is dark, it deals with depression and suicide, but it also has humor, and it was in some of the humor that I felt like Plath’s voice really came through most convincingly. I will simply list what I think some of the virtues and some of the flaws of the novel are.
One flaw, I think, is Plath’s over-reliance on metaphor. Plath often attempts to come up with a powerful metaphor to describe the state of mind of her protagonist. Her metaphors are sometimes powerful and beautiful but I think she uses them too much. I think there are generally more powerful ways to convey a character’s state of mind. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye - a novel I may be referencing a lot since there are a lot of similarities between the two novels and because I think Salinger’s novel is ultimately more successful - there is a scene where Holden is quite depressed and he is riding in a Taxi cab. He reaches back into his hair and feels that some of the dampness in his air has turned to ice. This physical description is actually a more powerful way to convey Holden’s depression than a metaphor (rather than saying “I felt a loneliness as deep as the ocean”, etc.). Tone of voice can also convey a great deal. If the novel is narrated in an hysterical tone of voice, or one of the characters takes on an hysterical tone of voice, it often draws the reader right into the state of mind of the character rather than using a metaphor to describe it from the outside.
I will say that sometimes Plath's metaphors are right on the money. In one scene Esther is waiting in a waiting room to see Buddy Willard, who is a boy that she has been dating, and it is clear he is much more enthused about the relationship than she is. While she is waiting she sees a fountain and “The fountain spurted a few inches into the air from a rough length of pipe, threw up its hands, collapsed and drowned its ragged ribble in a stone basin of yellowing water.” I like this metaphor for two reasons. First, she is describing an actual physical object in the environment so its use as a metaphor here is disguised. Second, even though it is an actual object in the room it perfectly describes her feelings for Buddy Willard, it is an objective correlate in T.S. Eliot’s terms. She is trying to be excited about seeing Buddy but all she can muster is a spurt that winds up just dribbling down and drowning in its own depths. Plath is also sometimes able to convey mood powerfully without relying on metaphors: in her descriptions of her hot baths, for instance, I think we get a better feeling for her depression than in her metaphors.
Another flaw is: I do not think that the character of Esther Greenwood is as well developed as Holden Caulfield. What was Esther like before her episode of depression? Throughout the novel she can sometimes be quite cruel. Is that a result of the distorting effects of the bell jar or was that always a part of her personality? We learn that she is ambitious, and a good student, and we pick up bits and pieces here and there, but the character is vague, and her voice as a narrator is too literary to reveal much about her character. Holden does not narrate in the voice of a writer but Esther does. It feels like it is written in third-person, by Sylvia Plath, even though it is written in first-person, and is supposed to be the first-person narration of Esther Greenwood the character. When Esther says, at the very beginning of the book, “By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream” (1) it does not feel like a character speaking to us, it feels like a writing exercise. It is a well written sentence but it is not in the voice of the character. It is generic literary language, as is the line “Slowly I swam up from the bottom of a black sleep” (50). Compare this to a writer like Celine whose narrators speak in colloquial language mos of the time but can also utter a passage of the most beautiful poetry without it seeming like a literary device; it feels like it comes from the character and is something they would actually say.
The book is quite powerful in places. There is a scene where she is out with a man and he attempts to rape her. It was a frightening scene that I thought did a great job of conveying her helplessness and fear. I have often pondered the difference between seeing violence in a movie or reading about violence in a piece of literature and seeing violence in real life. A lot of the writers I like have a fairly violent aesthetic. Cormac McCarthy, for example. Violence in the works of Cormac McCarthy conveys some kind of aesthetic emotion that is difficult to describe but it is very different from the feeling one has when one sees violence in real life. I have been in a few situations in my life where violence suddenly erupted without warning and the adrenaline starts flowing immediately. It is not an aesthetic or contemplative emotion at all. I thought the scene where the man attempts to rape Esther succeeded in conveying the kind of emotion one feels when violence is actually witnessed. It made the reader feel, to some degree, what it would feel like to actually be in a situation, rather than contemplating it from an aesthetic distance.
I thought Plath’s use of foreshadowing was also a mixed bag. Foreshadowing is a great way to draw the reader in and keep their attention and their interest. I will say, I never had trouble remaining interested in Plath’s novel, but there were some foreshadows that failed to pay off. Very early in the book Esther makes reference to a corpose that Buddy makes her see. I was sort of expecting a pay off, and while Esther does eventually narrate the scene, it does not have a huge impact. On the other hand, there is some brilliant foreshadowing in the opening when Esther is contemplating the execution of the Rosenbergs when Esther can’t help wondering what it would be like to be burned alive “along all your nerves”, which foreshadows her own electroshock therapy.
All in all, I thought Plath’s novel was quite satisfying and powerful despite its flaws. I would liken it to blues music. I am not a music historian, and I actually know very little about the history of the blues, but the analogy to me is this: the blues musicians did not possess all the musical training or sophistication of the great composers. They were not composing music that was as complex or refined as Mozart or Beethoven. But, they managed to express themselves very powerfully with the means at their disposal. In some ways, more powerfully than the more refined composers. They were expressing real suffering, without filter, and people respond to it on a gut level. I think Plath’s novel is like blues music in that way. While there are some flaws in her technique no one can doubt that she is expressing something real and that connects with people. Which is why I think this novel is still so popular in spite of naysayers like Harold Bloom. Critics often attempt to tell artists how they should go about expressing themselves, as if they were trying to channel the waters of a flood, but water has a tendency to follow its own will and explode wherever it wants, and I think we should be grateful for that.
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