Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Feminism? Please!

Tonight, I finished what I consider to be an essential book.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
A novel about a woman who lost it!
As in, her mind.

Wonderfully written, even though I still do not know what a bell jar is?
My research has only unearthed that the title referenced the fact that a bell jar essentially traps something to keep it on display. And supposedly, Plath used the bell jar as a metaphor to talk about the repression of women in American society.
See… I did not get that last point at all.
But, I seem to never see feminism when it is supposed to be there.
For instance, I love Margaret Atwood.
And I don’t just mean her books.
I mean personally.
I am sort of “in love” with her.
I have met her and spoken with her on several occasions, and I have honestly found her to be so gracious and receptive, and totally… Margaretty.
She leaves me somewhat... enamored.
One time [lacking a book] I got her to sign a Starbucks coffee receipt, and not only did she do it, she laughed about it.
Thought it was cute.

But whenever I tell people I love Margaret Atwood’s work [she is one of the very few authors I would buy without even checking for what the new book is about… I have to be selective like this when it comes to new releases, by the way, because I am horribly poor… so, Atwood shares this privilege of unconditionally getting into my wallet, along with an elite grouping of authors such as Jose Saramago, Jane Urquhart, Emma Donoghue, Ian McEwan, and Shakespeare…. the latter of which has, regretfully, if I have anything to say about it, really not released anything “new” in a while…] OK, that was the longest bracketed diversion in history…. so, as I was saying, whenever I tell people I am in love with Margaret Atwood, so often they say something like, “Oh, she is so feminist!”

I am waiting for clarification.
So what if she is? What would that have to do with the level of literature she is capable of producing?
To not read Atwood, based on such a [false] prejudice, would be like not reading Saramago because “he is so Portuguese!”
Or “old!”

Thing is…. I have read very nearly almost everything by Atwood, and I don’t even see her as a "feminist writer."
In reading Atwood, I always have found that her women are pretty much as screwed up as her men are.
In fact, the men are often more admirable and/or decent and/or intelligent than any of the women are.
Maybe what people mean when they say that Margaret Atwood is a “feminist” is that when she talks she has a sort of nasally tone that makes you instantly realize she is about at least 217 times smarter than you are, on virtually every subject at hand?

Is that what Atwoodian “feminism” means?
Just thought I would drop into town tonight, long enough to say that I do not see The Bell Jar as being a novel “about the repression of women in American society.”
And mind, I got this quote from a very reputable source.
And we all know that there are only four gradations of Veracity in the world right?
1) Oprah.
2) God.
3) Wikipedia.
4) Human Experience.

Granted, the book was published in the same year as I was born… [1963] so maybe back then, it was some sort of social statement of… something.
But I read it from a purely modern male perspective I guess, and my conclusion is that it is a wonderful novel that should not be overlooked by all of the three or four genders we have on the go, here in modern-day 2008!
And finally… do any of you know Margaret Atwood’s phone number?
I seem to have lost it!



Beth said...

Those who dismiss Atwood's work as "feminist" do both themselves (and her) a disservice. There is so much more to discover and learn from her writing.
And, no, I do not have her phone number (can't believe you LOST it!) but I do live near the neighbourhood where she grew up. I love spotting familiar landmarks in her books. (Not a particularly literary thing to do but who cares?)
And The Bell Jar was a wonderful (sad) book.

Melanie said...

I admire the depth of your adoration of Margaret! I too have found her to be an extremely intelligent and entertaining speaker, and very generous with her signings etc. (Though I never had her sign a receipt, darn it.) And no, I can't pass on her number as somehow I seem to have lost it too!

cipriano said...

Ahhh, some wonderful fellow Atwood fans!
And by "fellow" I do not mean to imply that you are FELLOWS, per se.

Yes Beth, The Bell Jar was a sad one. But I think it was really written well. Well-written?

Melanie: If you find her number let me know!

Shark said...

I've never read Atwood, but I have a couple books of Sylvia Plath poetry. I'd take her number any day, only she would be like in her 60's now, gross...

Merisi said...

You really think of the "Bell Jar" as "some sort of social statement of… something?"

To think that "The Bell Jar" (published only a few years after Mary McCarthy's "The Group") cannot anymore get its point accross in 2008, to a person born in the year it was published, really makes me wonder.

"The Bell Jar is more than a confessional novel, it is a comic but painful statement of what happens to a woman's aspirations in a society that refuses to take them seriously.
This quote is from the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

Woman may not be under a bell jar anymore (or so they are told), they are hitting the glass ceiling instead.

I wonder if there's any connection between the "bell jar" being made of glass, and the ceiling. Good metaphers both, the last one a poignant reminder that even beyond the bell jar, there's still a limit to a woman's aspirations, invisible unless you hit it.

S. said...

Yes, but Bantam also (simplistically) calls the book an "autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath's own mental breakdown." Of course, Bantam is primarily about selling books - whatever it takes (Ask James Frey about this one.)
I don’t know about anyone else, but often I feel that the publisher's blurb is hardly a valid description of what the book is "about." It is - at best - reductionist merchandising.

And what is really meant (by all of us) by the term "feminist"? Is it a pejorative word or a word to be used with pride? My own daughter and I share very different views of what the word connotes.

If to be feminist simply means taking charge of our life in the way all humans should feel they have the right to do - with dignity and pride and without external limits - then maybe we need to add the word "masculinist" to our lexicon as well. I know many men who have been unable to get beyond the "glass ceiling" and many who have had similar breakdowns and difficulties functioning in society.

My understanding of your use of the term, cipriano, is that you use it to suggest that Plath is not to be limited to that circumscription. If that is the case, if you feel that slapping the term down (like throwing down a gauntlet) is too diminishing of her considerable range and talent, I fully agree with you.
I think that the book was also a “sort of social statement of something”...and I am not even sure that I could put what that “something” was into words. It’s too complex to begin to discuss here.

I feel that, though there are issues, this book is not simply about being male or being female. Plath seems to be writing about a woman’s plight, certainly, but more about the experience of a sensitive, artistic nature. This is a quality that is not limited to one gender.

According to Plath's mother, Sylvia considered the novel to be a bit of a “potboiler.” In an afterword to the edition of the book I have (Bantam), Aurelia Plath had written that she recalled her daughter getting the grant to write a novel and in the "space of time allotted, she had a miscarriage, an appendectomy, and had given birth to her second child, Nicholas."
Sylvia, according to her mother, said that – under pressure of deadline - she had "throw[n] together events from [her] own life, fictionalizing to add color.” Sylvia thought that it was “a pot boiler really, but . . . it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown. . ."

Her mother adds that Sylvia said that she "tried to picture [her] world and the people in it as shown through the distorting lens of a bell jar." She was planning to follow up with a book that would show "that same world as seen through the eyes of health." Of course, we know that book was never written.

There is even evidence that Plath feared its success, in fact, because apparently she realized that it portrays people - in caricature - who were, in her own situation, very kind and generous to her. She wrote to her brother: "This novel must never be published in the United States” for it would show her as ungrateful to the people who were in fact so good to her during the time of the breakdown.

Always provocative, cipriano. I enjoy your blog.
--- S.