This is the third or fourth time I’ve experienced The Bell Jar, though the first time on audio. I don’t normally listen to rereads on audio if I already have a strong attachment to the book, but Jason said Maggie Gyllenhaal did a fantastic job reading this one and added a new element to the story layering, and so I decided to give it a go.
Wow. Amazing. The performance was absolutely stunning!
In the book, Esther starts as a naive young woman trying to make it in the world. She is only kind of confident, trying to be cool when she’s really just young and inexperienced. She sinks slowly into depression, until she no longer sounds naive, but flat and lifeless and wise well beyond her years, as if she’s now experienced things that would give her an entirely new outlook. Then, eventually, she rises up from the depression.
Those same things come across in the audio, but even more subtly than in the book. Gyllenhaal’s voice is young and naive and perfect for Esther. She was obviously performing this first-person-narrator character, rather than just reading. When I first read The Bell Jar, I did feel Esther was naive, but naive in a learned way (as odd as that seems), naive in a way that prepared her to see things and not be surprised – a lot the way I felt about myself in 1999 when I read it. I felt her depression steal over her long before it does – but in the audiobook, while the signs of depression are there, the outward presentation of Esther’s voice remains light, young, naive, childish. It’s only when Esther announces that she hasn’t showered in three weeks, because she doesn’t see the point of showering every day for the rest of her life, that the full force of depression hits.
It’s subtle. Gyllenhaal’s voice doesn’t change, but the way she says things – inflections at the ends of sentences, the speed at which she speaks – changes just slightly, to make the words flatter, duller, turned inward. It’s as if Esther is playing with depression, in the first part, as if she’s entranced by it, but has no idea the danger it really poses. It’s brilliantly done, and the journey outwards – beginning after the insulin reaction – is the same way. There are small changes in the text – Esther starting to include herself as part of a group of other people, in her language, thinking of herself as “a woman” or “a college student” rather than a lone person who belongs to no group – and there were the same changes back out of the flatness in the performance. However, the performance doesn’t return to the original naivety, but to a new set of nuances and speech patterns altogether. Esther emerges almost like her former self – but older, transformed, wary, less naive.
The book is, of course, brilliant, and Plath does an amazing job bringing Esther through this journey and back again. It’s obvious that she went through this herself, and knows exactly what it feels like. If not for the brilliant text, the audio performance could never have been so great. But at the same time, another reader could have read that book aloud, and while the book may still have been brilliant, there would have been no extra life brought to Esther’s character. Gyllenhaal turned that book into something MORE, gave it more depth, more character, more life. It was phenomenal.