What is this world coming to? Last week, I read three books of a genre that I ordinarily would never touch: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Room by Emma Donoghue. And I’m surprised to say… I didn’t totally hate them!
Now I sound surprised here because to be frank, I’m not a fan of feminist books. The message of feminism is great and all, but literary feminism has always managed me make me either really sad or really angry.
I mean, almost every other genre besides the feminism genre has a clear resolution for a happy ending. You can overthrow the corrupt government in the dystopian genre; you can catch the murderer in the crime genre; you can go and make his babies already in the romance genre. But what’s the solution to rape, sexual assault, and trauma wrapped up in the form of a feminist message? Move on, forget about it, get a sandwich?
So yeah, literary feminism isn’t really my thing. It too often deploys that certain shock strategy to reel you in. But fortunately, I can confidently say that nothing can ruin my mood today. I just got my summer grades back for AIDS, microbiology, and endocrinology, and I got straight A’s. SCORE! And after reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath which I enjoyed highly, I found two more books that I thought would be worth adding to this discussion/review today. So cheers, and hope you enjoy!
The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath
I admit, I initially was extremely hesitant to pick up this book. It seemed like one of those period stories where the female protagonist becomes downtrodden by a sexist world, and the story ends with her having to accept the grim reality of it all. I HATE those kinds of stories, and was worried this might be one of them.
But the Sylvia Plath (the author) graduated from my alma mater, and that’s what ultimately pushed me to read this book, and now I’m really glad that I did because I actually enjoyed it a lot. Which you might think is strange for me to say, considering this is a book about depression and suicide…but the way Sylvia Plath writes her story (detached, off-hand, and almost whimsical) makes the descent of Esther (the protagonist) into mental instability wholly believable, and, oddly enough, logical.
Seriously, I could literally feel the emptiness draining Esther’s soul and her will to live as she slowly becomes more and more disillusioned by the world, and that was conveyed so palpably. And not that I’m not condoning suicide in any way, but the lack of expression in the sixties, especially for smart women like Esther, must’ve been a slow and suffocating death in itself.
I mean, if you can’t talk about why you detest your perfect but hypocritical boyfriend, or why you’re feeling so empty in your position at a highly esteemed internship, there’s nothing you can do but wither in your feelings of loneliness. That’s inexplicable feeling of sadness and emptiness is expressed amazingly in this book, and that’s where the author succeeded in my opinion.
Now in case you didn’t know, there’s a very emotional hook in the fact that Esther was meant to be a reflection of Sylvia Plath herself, who committed suicide soon after this book was published. The parallels between Esther and Plath’s lives are undeniable, and what makes me sad is that this story shows all the signs of the struggle that Sylvia Plath must have been trying to contain. And the fact that Plath ends the book with Esther looking to her future with renewed hope suggests that this must have been the hope that she had for herself. Very sad indeed.
Bottom line, I love how realistic this story was. The message is both grim and hopeful at the same time, and in that respect reflects the truth of our reality. Either we succumb to what we don’t like about the world, or we accept it and move on. Sylvia Plath conveyed that message beautifully.
Room (2010) by Emma Donoghue
This story is highly reminiscent of the Ariel Castro kidnappings (which came to light only three years ago) in that it follows the kidnapping of a woman who was held prisoner in a room for more than 7 seven years. And this story is narrated by her son Jack, who was born to her during her years of rape and captivity, and also has never seen the outside world before.
Now when I first started this book, it was surprisingly light. The pithy style of Jack’s voice made it easy to read, and the horrors of Jack and his mother’s captivity were really toned down due to his child-like narration. As a result, the story didn’t feel bogged down, which was a definite plus for me. But once I approached the final part of the story, it was sadly anticlimactic, and quite frustrating to say the least.
At the point in the story when Jack and his mother finally escape from the rapist, I felt that there should be a change in the mood or pace to indicate that this was finally building towards a finale. But unfortunately, there wasn’t a finale–the story seemed to just fizzle out and die, as though the author had run out of ideas on where to take this story.
And that failure was largely attributed to the fact that there wasn’t any of character development in this book. I mean, is Jack’s discovery of flowers and butterflies really more important than his discovery of what that captivity had meant for his mother? In my opinion, I feel like the author should’ve focused a bit more on showing Jack maturing at some point in the story, perhaps by having him witness his mother suffer from PTSD or something, because that would’ve triggered an understanding of how horrible this experience must have been for his mother.
But because there wasn’t that understanding, Jack came off as self-centered and clueless from start to finish, and that was a frustrating experience for me. Sure, Jack’s naive narration style was interesting and fresh at first, but without him gaining some perspective by the end of the book, I’m left wondering what the whole point of that story had been. And that’s saying a lot about a woman’s horrific battle with rape and captivity.
So do I recommend this book? Like really recommend it? No….and yes. There were several moments in the story that did end up moving me, and the ending wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be. So maybe in light of my biggest frustration (the lack of character development) the positives of this book might have been lost in my review here. So give it a shot and judge for yourself! I can see why so many people liked it, and you might end up liking it too.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
When this book first caught my eye at Barnes and Noble, it was because the cover looked so cute. Cute. And because it was “cute,” I naively thought that it must be a sweet romance or fun adventure story. Well….nope. Just no.
The story revolves around a woman called Offred who lives in the former United States, which is the now dystopian nation of Gilead. In this nation, women’s rights have been completely stripped away, and Offred has been assigned the role of a handmaid, a woman kept solely for the purpose of reproduction. But throughout this book, Offred builds a relationship with the Commander and a man called Nick, and her exterior facade of submissiveness falls away as she is reintroduced to many “freedoms” of her old life, such as the freedom to dress provocatively, the freedom to read books, the freedom to smoke cigarettes, the freedom to choose who to have sex with–all the things that were taken for granted which have become a luxury. In that this story ultimately examines how Offred struggles to simultaneously accept her grim reality while struggling to regain her dignity and self-worth as a human being.
Let me tell you right off the bat–this book is rather dark, but not as dark as it could’ve been. (SPOILERS!!!) The fact that Offred was ultimately rescued by an underground resistance, of which Nick was presumably a member, means this book ends on a relatively happy note, and the epilogue reveals that the corrupt nation of Gilead had been overthrown in the near future. So it’s a double happy ending! And I’d say that’s one of the few times that a dystopian novel had presented a happy ending, so I’m very pleased by this fact.
However, there’s not much else I can say about this book. It’s undoubtedly very well-composed and sends a great message (or warning) about sexism. But the reason why I’m somewhat unenthusiastic about it is that I’ve read too many dystopian novels like it. Or maybe all dystopian novels are resemble one another? I don’t know why, but I feel like all the dystopian novels NEED to have some form of corrupt government, shocking insight into its regime to reel you in, a protagonist who’s dissatisfied by that way of life. That’s the basic plot device of all the dystopian books I’ve read (1984, The Hunger Games, Brave New World, A Handmaid’s Tale, The Giver), and while it’s a very good plot device, I think I’m getting somewhat sick of that formula.
But just for the record, I do recommend this book. I really enjoyed it because it has one of those plots that unwind slowly, and that left a deeper impression on me. And it’s ultimately a book with a great message, and I think it’s something that everyone should read at least one in their lifetime.