“…nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Another comparison of some of the books I read over the summer: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ J.D.Salinger and ‘The Bell Jar’ Sylvia Plath. If I’m honest, I didn’t expect these books to be at all similar, since the former is supposed to be a book completely expressing teenage thoughts and the latter is Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about the year of her attempted suicide…yeah, they don’t sound that comparable, do they?

I’ll begin with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, since that’s the one I started with. I admit, I mainly read this because I’d finished all my holiday books and had to start eating into my brother’s, but also partly because of reccommendations from my friend Sophie and my mum. Plus, it’s always on everyone’s ‘must-read’ lists, and I can definitely see why after finishing it. My main reason for enjoying it because *drum roll* I actually liked the main character! I know. Big deal. But this is from the girl who found Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw (from ‘Wuthering Heights’), Katniss and many more indescribably irritating at times. Holden Caulfield, however, I could definitely relate to, partially, admittedly because he found other characters irritating for the minutest things. I looked into the book a bit, just on ‘Sparknotes’ and around the internet for articles, and it seems that Holden is a hero of many; to quote Sparknotes: “Something about his discontent, and his vivid way of expressing it, makes him resonate powerfully with readers who come from backgrounds completely different from his.And my background is certainly different from his, especially in terms of schoolwork (my friends will definitely back me up in this – I get stressed if I don’t get an essay in on time, unlike Holden who is constantly getting expelled). Holden is constantly criticising people for being boring, insecure and above all ‘phony’- meaning not only fake, but also overly conventional or typical. Although he often uses the term to mean ‘superficial’, he in fact is demonstrating this quality in himself; he constantly chooses the more simple, categorical solutions over the more complex answers. However, despite the ease with which the reader feels in agreement with his judgement, Holden is clearly psychologically disturbed, and, as such, is an unreliable narrator (like so many of the books I seem to be reading at the moment). The tragic elements of Holden’s backstory are told very sensitively and are neither overdone, nor underdone. We are told *SPOILER* that Holden’s brother Allie died three years before the story starts from leukemia, when Holden was thirteen; he says himself at the beginning that: “sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen” and this suggests that time has stuck still for him since then. Although the death is not told in brutal detail, the way that Holden constantly refers back to his brother, and the way Allie is glorified, almost to the point of sainthood -perhaps because he was unique and individual and he never had a chance to be corrupted by the grown-up world -, are very realistic features of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition, the mention of Allie in the book almost always occurs just at Holden’s lowest points; he is a security blanket that Holden uses to protect himself with.

I won’t reveal any more about the story for you, but seriously – read it! It’s a classic (although that isn’t always the best reason for reading something) and is very engaging, easy to read and has a protagonist who is easy to identify with.

I probably wouldn’t have read ‘The Bell Jar’ if I hadn’t studied ‘Birthday Letters’ by Ted Hughes last year for my English AS Level. For those of you who don’t know, Hughes and Plath are both famous modern poets who met at Cambridge (Plath was a Fulbright Scholar – she came over from America on a scholarship) who married 1956 and had two children together. They separated in 1963 after Hughes went off with another woman and Plath committed suicide later that year by putting her head in an oven.  Yep, it’s a depressing story. But don’t write her off as simply a tortured soul. Her poetry is beautiful; my personal favourite has to be ‘You’re’ written about one of her children – I’ll post it in a separate post later on, so that this isn’t too long!

Now, onto the book. If you want more of the back story, you can look it up yourself – there’s too much of it and the details are too famous for me to retell here, especially since her later life isn’t really relevant to this. However, as I’ve said before, ‘The Bell Jar’ is semi-autobiographical; although it is supposedly written by Esther Greenwood, most of the events in the book are events that really happened to Plath, and I feel that this becomes obvious through Plath’s incredible powers of summing a feeling up in just a few words. Her sensuous imagery is one of the things she is most famous for, and this is evident from the very first chapter in which she describes New York (which I love!):

‘By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite crayons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.’

…Just wow, right?!

Quite apart from the imagery, the story is gripping and again, I quite liked the protagonist, Esther. Although she’s depressed and, like Holden, psychologically damaged by a family death earlier, she is, again quite identifiable with her irritation towards people for no good reason (I know, teenage angst…). Definitely worth a read, if purely for understanding depressed people more and the way that electrotherapy was used in the 1940-60s. Overall then, another great book with another interesting and understandable main character. I can’t decide which book I liked better, as they both have similar themes, protagonists, yet quite different styles of writing; Esther seems relatively mature yet has a childish sense of injustice and character, whereas Holden has a very clearly teenagery (if that’s even a word!) style of writing although he admittedly does have an inflated sense of his own maturity level which you could compare with that of Esther. But read them both!

I’m so sorry I haven’t blogged in a while – I had a lot on this weekend, blahblahblah, but don’t worry, I’ll be back to updating much more often now. One thing I’m incredibly excited about it that my mum has just booked tickets to the all-male production of ‘Twelfth Night’ starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry at the Apollo Theatre in January: SO. EXCITED.

A brief note about the recent BBC production of ‘Parade’s End’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. I don’t know the book well enough to judge this properly; I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t fantastic. I wasn’t massively eager to watch the next episode and quite a lot of it seemed a bit unrealistic to me. Anyway, moving on to the important bit. Guess who had a bit part in the series….? Jamie Parker, the actor whose talk I went to after watching him as Henry V!

Ok, maybe it’s just me who was excited by that… 😉

Coming up soon, I’ll be blogging about some more of the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series, the new ‘Anna Karenina’ film, ‘Shakespeare on Toast’ by Ben Crystal, ‘1599’ by James Shapiro and a student production of ‘Bodas de Sangre’ or ‘Blood Wedding’ (a Spanish play by Lorca). Keep checking back, and please help me get more followers if possible! Thanks for reading…


One thought on ““…nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

  1. Yessss Alice! Was genuinely excited (in the lamest English-y way possible) to see this. Totally agree with everything you said about these two gems, I thought they were so similar. Quite a lot of people seem to despise Holden and Esther, though, but I love ’em.

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