The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I was supposed to be having the time of my life.
As it turns out, Esther Greenwood–brilliant, talented, successful, and increasingly vulnerable and disturbed–does have an eventful summer. The Bell Jar follows Esther, step by painful step, from her New York City June as a guest editor at a fashion magazine through the following, snow-deluged January. Esther slides ever deeper into devastating depression, attempts suicide, undergoes bungled electroshock therapy, and enters a private hospital. In telling her own story–based on Plath’s own summer, fall, and winter of 1953-1954–Esther introduces us to her mother, her boyfriend Buddy, her fellow student editors, college and home-town acquaintances, and fellow patients. She scrutinizes her increasingly strained relationships, her own thoughts and feelings, and society’s hypocritical conventions, but is defenseless against the psychological wounds inflicted by others, by her world, and by herself. Pitting her own aspirations against the oppressive expectations of others, Esther cannot keep the airless bell jar of depression and despair from descending over her. Sylvia Plath’s extraordinary novel ends with the hope, if not the clear promise, of recovery.
I’ve heard people say that The Bell Jar is a depressing book. I don’t feel that way. Granted, it is about a young woman’s descent into depression, or schizophrenia, but Plath’s writing is so beautiful and her truthfulness so stark that the book is fascinating. In the end there is hope of recovery. We know that Plath ended up committing suicide years later, but that’s not an inevitable ending for Esther. She has hope. She’s going back to college, recovered. Of course, Esther does make a point in the last pages of the novel.
How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again? (pg. 241)
In writing this autobiographical novel, Plath provides us with insight into how mental illness really feels to person, how it distorts their perceptions, thoughts and actions, not just a dry description of the symptoms. At the same time, Esther is a young woman dealing with sex, men, familyand friend relationships, college, finding her place in a world where she doesn’t quite fit, issues women are still dealing with today. Did you know that women are twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode?
I don’t want to give the impression that the book is all doom and gloom. There are some very funny moments, like when all the interns get food poisoning from a lunch at Ladie’s Day. Plath could actually be a very humorous writer, although that’s not what she’s remembered for.
I need to read Ariel, one of her collections of poems. In The Bell Jar, you get a taste of her writing, but I would love to read her some of her poetry.