An Open Letter to Esther Greenwood

Dear Ms. Esther Greenwood,

I’m not exactly sure why I’m so fascinated by your story. My mother calls The Bell Jar a morbid novel; I see it as a hopeful one. It’s now been two years since I first encountered the book in which you reside, and I can’t get your words out of my mind. At the time of my first reading, I was an over-enthusiastic fourteen-year-old eager to get my hands on something by the Sylvia Plath, though, frankly, I feared The Bell Jar at first. I’d bought it vowing to begin reading immediately, yet I let it collect dust on my shelf, captivating and repelling me. Everything about The Bell Jar attracted me—the cover, the synopsis, the story a mirror of Sylvia Plath’s life, and still, I couldn’t will myself to begin. Even now, I don’t know when I decided was the right time to read The Bell Jar, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. 

Once I felt ready for it, I read your story in a day, Esther. Your poetic language fluttered through my mind for weeks afterward, and even now I quote The Bell Jar in my mind from time to time. I was proud that I’d read your story, and I was even prouder that it hadn’t changed me. The Bell Jar hadn’t thrust me into melancholy as I was secretly afraid it would. I thought my relationship with The Bell Jar was going to end when I shut the back cover, but I was wrong. The more I pondered your story, Esther, the more I saw myself in you. You were the extraordinary writer, a girl acclaimed for all that she’d accomplished in her youth. You’d been flown out to New York City (the city of my dreams), and while you were supposed to have the time of your life, you never felt more lost than you did that summer. Your accolades and aspirations reminded me of the very ones I wanted to attain, or had begun to already, and your sense of hopelessness inspired fear within me. I wondered—what if I ended up like you, washed up and burnt out after years of opportunity and success? 

I tried to pry my mind away from our similarities. I tried to jump into my next summer novel and find myself in that one, too. Unfortunately, Frankenstein doesn’t have the same space for modern comparisons, so my mind floated back under the bell jar as I continued to think about you. I know how you feel sometimes, Esther. I’m not sure I will ever get how it feels to seal myself away underground, dejected and refusing life, but I understand what it’s like to feel forced to know who I am (and inevitably realize I have no idea). Who do you want to be, Esther?  A botanist, an editor, a fiction writer? It comes down to the endless struggle of not knowing who “Esther Greenwood” is at all. The scene from your story that sticks out the most to me, Esther, is the one in which you’re sitting to have your photo taken at the end of the summer and are asked what you want to be. You decide you want to be a poet, but you begin to cry. The weight of expectation—the weight of having to know—has crushed me too, Esther, it really has.

After mulling over the things we have in common and sleeping through Frankenstein, I decided that I wanted to find meaning in your story one last time before I moved on. I didn’t want my lasting memories of The Bell Jar to be depressed and upset, because the novel does end on a hopeful note for me. Yes, you speak of the possibility of the suffocating bell jar falling back over your head, and yes, you go through so much in order to recover, but ultimately, you do recover, Esther. You find your way out from under the bell jar, and, to use your phrasing, are “born twice—patched, retreaded, and approved for the road.” There’s hope at the end of your story, and that’s what I remember most of all from The Bell Jar. That is the lesson I decide to take away from what you went through, that is the lesson I find and keep every time I read your account, and that is enough to keep me going on the days when I feel like I can’t. 

So what is it exactly that I’m trying to say to you, Esther? I suppose it’s a thank you, for being so memorable and like myself, but also for giving me hope as I continue to find my place in the world. I want to keep your story in mind as I navigate adolescence and birth into the adult world. I want to remember that, even when sealed under the bell jar, there’s a way out. I want to be patient with myself and kind to others. I want to listen to myself and others, because sometimes it is your own silence that’s in need of alleviating. So thank you, Esther Greenwood, for being lost and found and reborn in the space of 244 pages. You and your story are as constant in my mind as the brag of my old heart: I am, I am, I am.

By Sophia Moore

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