Sylvia Plath in 1957

October 27 would have been Sylvia Plath’s 80th birthday.  It has been nearly 50 years since Plath killed herself but her legacy as one of the most famous female poets and feminist icons of the 20th century looks set to continue.

I first read The Bell Jar when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I read it avidly, practically devouring it and feeling, perhaps for the first time, a book speak to me. I didn’t understand all of it but there was something about it that resonated with me. That doesn’t make a lot of sense on paper – The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl who has a nervous breakdown, feels she has lost  her creativity and undergoes electroconvulsive treatment.

None of those things had happened to me, and still haven’t, but nevertheless, certain passages have stuck with me, particularly the metaphor of the fig tree. The protagonist, Esther, imagines her life as a fig tree with various branches, each with a different possible future, ready for the picking, only Esther cannot decide which branch to take: “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

At the time, the outcome of starving to death because of too much choice was definitely something that frightened me. At the time of reading The Bell Jar I was expected to make all kinds of decisions about my future that I felt wholly unqualified to make – even today, over ten years later, I still don’t feel qualified to make them! Too much choice definitely felt like a burden, rather than the gift it really is.

One of the most wonderful things you can feel when reading a book is to suddenly realise that you’re not alone, that you’re not the only person to have thought or felt a certain way. Sometimes, authors can even give us the words to describe our feelings when we have been unable to. Sylvia Plath was one such author for me, and thousands of other women. Even though times have changed dramatically since Plath was writing and will no doubt continue to change, I have no doubt that new generations of teenagers will read her work and feel a powerful connection to her experience of being a young woman in an uncertain world.

-Sarah Jackson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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