A friend recommended that I read Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, as an example of an early and quintessential piece of Young Adult Literature. Plath was a gifted poet at a young age, but had struggled with getting her work published. One magazine rejected her 45 times before it accepted one of her poems. She then wrote this novel under the sponsorship of The Eugene Saxon Fellowship affiliated with Harper and Row. But when she submitted the final manuscript, the publisher rejected it, calling it "disappointing, juvenile and overwrought." It went on to publication initially in England, and it subsequently become a rare modern classic, read throughout the world. Plath even posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize for her collected poems.
The protagonist of The Bell Jar is a college-age woman named Esther Greenwood. We get to know her first while she's on a fellowship in New York City, working during the summer for a famous women's magazine, and being treated to gala openings, parties, and celebrity events. The "girls" she works with are portrayed with that distinctive and witty chatter often seen in movies made during roughly the same period, in the 1950s and early 60s. You can clearly hear the rapid fire delivery of clever dialogue exchanged between the young ladies visiting the magazine. In the course of the story, Esther descends from Bright Young Thing With a Promising Future to psychological madness and a serious attempt at suicide. After a period of confinement in an asylum and a series of electro-shock treatments, she eventually seems to be returning to some semblance of her old self, however fitfully and slowly. But the story ends right before she's set to be released from the institution and launched back into normal life. The author herself famously committed suicide about a month after the book's first publication in the United Kingdom, and it was quickly seen as autobiographical.
I'm writing about it today because of its main image - the bell jar, a common piece of laboratory equipment at a certain stage of modern science that was shaped like a dome or a bell, and most often made of clear glass. It could be used to create a special atmosphere for plants, or a weak vacuum when most of the oxygen was removed from it. As she returns to clarity, Esther sees herself in her madness as living in a bell jar, with little atmosphere, where it's hard to breathe. But then she insightfully extends the metaphor to the college girl she knew in her dorm, gossiping, playing cards, and living an endless round of parties and boys that's cut off from the real world outside the artificial atmosphere of the campus.
What struck me most about the book is the bell jar image and its wide applicability. It's very easy for any of us to get stuck in our own bell jar, with an artificial atmosphere that we take to be real, but that actually cuts us off from the broader world around us. The bell jar can be many things - madness, or superficiality, obsession, or desire, or something professional and work related that gets out of control. Years ago, the executives at Enron and several other high profile companies were living and working in their own bell jar. So were many mortgage officials and traders, just a few years back, and they were as a result the people whose work plunged us all into a deep and long recession.
A bell jar is created around us when we allow something to cut us off from the real sources of meaning and insight that are to be found more broadly and more deeply in life. There is a spiritual sickness and even a kind of death that can result. A life can spiral out of control. A business can crumble. Self destruction can ensue. We all know of leaders who've created around them an echo chamber, cutting themselves off from any fresh breeze of truth. They're in a bell jar of their own making.
Any person, or group of people, can be endangered by a bell jar that results from their attitudes and actions. Are you in one? Is your company or community?
The bell jar is a serious danger that we're all well-advised to avoid. Don't let anything become your bell jar, and cut you off from the fresh air of life and wisdom and love and meaning that you could and should be breathing. Keep on your guard. It's hard to see at first when one descends around you. Its transparency, or invisibility, is especially insidious. And that's why it's such a common trap. When you allow yourself to escape the confines of any such bell jar that threatens to constrain you, you benefit from a rush of fresh air, and get enough of an independent perspective to recognize the jar for what it is, and stay out of it, as a result.