26 July 2012

Book Review: Depression in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar

In Depression in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which forms part of the Greenhaven Press' Social Issues in Literature series and edited was by Dedria Bryfonski, readers will find a mixture of excerpts of previously published "viewpoints" on Plath's lone published novel.

The book begins with a brief Introduction and Chronology before launching into the recycled content broken into three chapters: Background on Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar and Depression, and Contemporary Perspectives on Depression.

Chapter 1 includes "The Life of Sylvia Plath" by Timothy Materer, "Sylvia Plath Was the Personification of American Literature" by Ted Hughes, as told to Drue Heinz, "Sylvia Plath Was a Shining Intellect and a Superb Student" by Dorothea Krook, and "Sylvia Plath's Depression Was Inherited" by Jane Feinmann. I should say that these chapter titles are not the original titles under which the excerpts were printed, but merely summaries.

In Chapter 2 we find "Sylvia Plath’s Retelling of Her Mental Breakdown Lacks Power and Emotion" by Saul Maloff, "Plath Uses Literary Doubles to Depict the Anguish of Her Schizophrenia" by Gordon Lameyer, "Illness Pervades The Bell Jar" by Howard Moss, "The Ending of The Bell Jar Is Cautiously Optimistic" by Caroline King Barnard, "The Bell Jar Examines the Public and Private Worlds of Madness" by Mason Harris, "The Bell Jar Relates a Girl's Search for Identity" by Marjorie G. Perloff, "The Bell Jar Chronicles a Search for Authenticity" by Susan Coyle, "The Bell Jar Illustrates Women's Limited Options" by Mary Allen, and "The Bell Jar Is the Story of Sylvia Plath's Mental Breakdown" by Linda Wagner-Martin.

In Chapter 3, there is "Both Depression and a Risk Factor for Suicide Run in Families" by Paul Fink, "Perfectionism in Gifted Teenagers Can Be Deadly" by Laurie Hyatt, "Unrealistic Pressures and a Lack of Societal Safeguards Cause Depression in Teenage Girls" by Maxine Frith, and "Hard Questions to Ask After a Cry for Help" by Perri Klass.

The book rounds out with a For Further Discussion series of questions, a section called For Further Reading, a Bibliography, and an Index.

Enough with the summary. This book is another instance of an educational/academic publisher making a mistake. The only benefit to this book is that it saves researchers the trouble of looking for each of the pieces individually. However, by reprinting excerpts only, said readers/researchers are at a disadvantage by not seeing all the contextual information from the entire article. And, to boot, there are inconsistencies and errors and little niggling deficiencies galore. Firstly, there is inconsistency in how quotes are presented. Some are in double-quotes (") and some in single quotes ('). Secondly each quote does not have a citation page number reference: so how are students - the target market - supposed to find the quote in the original source? Thirdly, not all the books and sources quoted are listed in the bibliography (for example, Letters Home is quoted in Materer's piece and her Journals are quoted in the Feinemann one, but neither work appears in either the "For Further Reading" section or in the "Bibliography"). Bizarrely, Plath's Ariel and The Collected Poems are listed in the "For Further Reading" and not in the "Bibliography." And as regards the "For Further Reading" and the "Bibliography", I could not figure out the rhyme or reason to having them separated. Oh, maybe if I actually read the one book I could have, but I gave up. Relatedly, the "Bibliography" stinks and the authors are listed unconventionally in alphabetical order: not in "last name, first name" order; but in "first name last name" order. Still related to the Bibliography, for the sources listed that appeared in periodicals: there are no page numbers listed in the citation.

I wish I was done, but I'm not! At the bottom of the first page of each "essay" is a citation. For a couple (Krook, Lameyer), the citation is wrong. Listed as appearing in Edward Butscher's biography Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), these two essays in fact appeared in his edited book of essays Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (1977). As I have read all the original, full pieces, I can say that they are all interesting and representative of perspectives on The Bell Jar. So, good job on the selection (though admittedly I did not touch chapter 3 "Contemporary Perspectives" and prefer to ignore its existence). Lastly, while the binding of the paperback edition is good, and the cover is nice and glossy, the printing quality of the text is poor. Awful, in fact. The ink is faint in places and the quality of the photographs reprinted is also wanting. Overall I'm glad I didn't pay for it.

Like I said in my review of How to Write About Sylvia Plath , academic publishers have a responsibility to publish good books for their [impressionable] student audience. In Depression in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Gale/Cengage Learning and the Greenhaven Press fail miserably to uphold the burden of their educational obligation.

8 comments :

The Plath Diaries said...

It's reviews like this that make me afraid to send you my thesis in future! ;)

You sound quite fair in your summary though. I strongly agree that academic publishers have a responsibility to pushing good Plath criticism. Surely in this day and age, the pitfalls of Plath studies are easily distinguishable and should be rejected? I suppose we can only hope that the good work will out!

Do you know, I have never read a Plath essay by Gordon Lameyer. Must get into JSTOR etc and take a look. Would be interesting to see his critical take on things.

P.s. I finished The Letters of Ted Hughes yesterday. Very mixed opinions on it - really my biggest wonder is, what/if any letters were not included? Little to no mention of Assia, really. Also wonder if any edits took place to backtrack.

I suppose because of my recent Coole Park visit, I was also interested in how Hughes would describe that trip - seems h still stuck to the Barrie Cooke alibi: which we know now to be untrue!

Interesting also, to have been at Smith and read Aurelia's letters and now TH's reply. He was quite canny with her, really.

Enjoyed the Cambridge era and also the later life writings the most, I think.

And p.s. I don't know if the USA version has the same pictures, but the one of him rolling fence wire with Seamus Heaney is cringeworthy! So staged - they're both wearing their Sunday shoes and good jackets! Men of the earth - I think not!! :)

The Plath Diaries said...

*little to no mention of Assia after her death, I meant.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I had a laugh on those renamings of the chapters! Too funny, and probably, too, too true.

I have read so many biographies and criticisms myself now that I almost can't stand them. Tell me something new...

To the Plath Diaries, above: Overall, I loved the Letters of Ted Hughes, but yes, there feels to be some purposeful deletions, especially given how many letters he wrote and how he dwelled on his subjects, almost endlessly exploring them. It seems to me that Olwyn and Frieda may have put the kabosh on some of the more scandalous ones, but who knows.

Carl Rollyson said...

The published Hughes letters do leave out some important matters concerning Sylvia--as I point that out in my forthcoming biography. Don't be afraid to send material to Peter for his review. It can only improve your work. I know, because that is what I did.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Can't wait to read your book, Carl! Will you be attending the Symposium?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Carl - very kind words. Thank you very much.

The Plath Diaries - I certainly didn't mean to make you nervous about my reading your thesis!! To be critical, further, of the terrible educational & academic publications (on Plath, though I am sure it extends to other subjects): they give little to no time for a work to carefully built. For my own book, which 3.2 people have read, I was given about 8-10 weeks to write the entire thing! So, in some ways they are to blame for having tight deadlines, in other ways, they are are to blame for hiring non experts. I like to think I was the right person for the Chelsea House book...

I look forward to reading more about your impressions and opinions regarding The Letters of Ted Hughes. Are you planning a review on your excellent blog?

pks

panther said...

I know that you are paraphrasing for comic effect, Peter, but does Lameyer really use the word "schizophrenia" in his essay about SP ?

Because whatever label you might use for her problems, schizophrenia is surely not the right one. Clinical depression, certainly. Bipolar, likely. Schizophrenia a whole different ball-game.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Panther

Hi there. Welcome back! That quoted title for the Lameyer excerpt ("Plath Uses Literary Doubles to Depict the Anguish of Her Schizophrenia") was assigned by the publisher - not by me. Though I realize why you might assume I might do that sort of thing... As for whether or not Lameyer uses this word himself in the essay I'm not sure. I do not have this book at hand at the moment (I think I left it at work - a table was uneven and I needed to level it out with something!). I'll check to see and comment back.

With kind regards,
Peter

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