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Thursday, 21 October 2010

Classic Openings: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath is probably known more for her suicide and marriage to Ted Hughes than for her poetry and prose, which seems a terrible shame. The Bell Jar was her only novel, written in 1963 under a pseudonym a few weeks before her death. It's notable for the treatment of madness and, more significantly, the world that perceives it.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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 paper - goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.

For me, this opening works extremely well for several reasons.

1. It reads like poetry. Anyone who's read any of Plath's poetry will appreciate the way in which she hooks the reader into the story here. The 'granite canyons', the glittering car roofs and the imagery of dust all conspire to create a vivid portrait of the New York that protagonist Esther Greenwood is inhabiting.

2. It employs foreshadowing. The middle line that separates the two paragraphs is distinctly loaded. 'I thought it must be the worst thing in the world'. Illuminated on the page like that it is obviously supposed to be noticed by the reader and interpreted as they wish. One of the significant side effects of space on a page is that the reader often attaches some importance to it.

3. The voice of the novel is vivid. Aside from describing New York, the opening few paragraphs also introduce you to the as-yet unnamed narrator. This is Esther, as we will learn later. But the opening paragraph gives a close analysis of character, managing to tune into a few vital points instead of trying to paint a broad picture that could be anyone. By honing in on the execution issue, Plath also cements her theme right at the beginning of the novel.

4. The execution idea is a memorable and gripping one. I remember the first time I read this book that mentions of execution and burned nerves right at the start were a bit of a shock to the system (no pun intended). But they did one thing - they kept me reading. A book that starts with such imagery cannot possibly shy away from portraying anything else in vivid detail. And you know what? It didn't.

The Bell Jar is available to buy here.

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