A “modern classic.” Over the course of our scholarly careers, we’ve heard of this type of book over and over again, and yet the idea of a modern classic means something different to each reader. Some of us think of books we had to force ourselves to read in high school or gen ed classes, while others might think of books that marked the start of their lifelong love of literature. With their somewhat antiquated language and outdated references, it can sometimes be hard to believe that a book written in the mid-twentieth century could still have that much relevance today.
I’ll admit, when I have the chance to read a book in my free time, something considered a “modern classic” is usually not my first choice. Instead, I gravitate towards more contemporary fiction—stories that I think will be easier to connect with. When I was home this past winter break, looking through my overstuffed shelves for an end-of-the-year read, I came across the copy of The Bell Jar I’d bought my freshman year of high school—and left untouched for almost seven years. I was just about to pass over it again, thinking that I still wasn’t ready to read it, when I stopped myself—and picked it up.
The novel follows Esther Greenwood, a young twenty-something on the verge of graduating college and entering the “real world.” She works for a publisher in New York City, loves poetry, and has always been the image of seemingly endless potential. Sounds like the dream, right? But as she begins to recognize the endless paths she could decide to take in her life, the hypocritical expectations of her romantic relationships and the futility of it all, Esther’s perfect facade begins to crumble…
Here are a few quotes from Esther that stand out as particularly relevant for us as women even in the 21st century, as well as a couple that are just super relatable:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch[…]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….”
“The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
“I am sure there are things that can’t be cured by a good bath but I can’t think of one.”
“I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.”
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar completely upended my expectations of what it means to read a modern classic, and in the best way possible. Of course, this book handles tough topics of depression, suicide, and the treatments mental health institutions used in the 1960s. It’s not an emotionally easy read, but it is an important one for women bracing themselves for the transition between college and “the real world.” Esther’s pensive voice and pointed candor make The Bell Jar so much more than just an outdated story. Although this book is over 50 years old, Esther Greenwood’s story remains achingly relevant for women as we strive to weave a balanced life between school and career aspirations, the pressures of relationships, and the importance of caring for one’s mental health. It reminds the reader that she is not the first or only one to have felt the same way as Esther and that there is always, always hope.