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.
I lost my copy of The Bell Jar. I don’t remember who borrowed it and I never got it back. It was a much loved book. I need to replace it.
I am glad you liked it. I agree with you. It has many layers to it.
I won a copy of Ariel from Serena of savvy verses. It is one of my most cherished possessions. I love leafing throught.
You have to read Plath’s poetry. Read it online as of now.
That sounds a very powerful book. Thanks for the review.
I think I’m one of the ones who told you this is depressing, in fact it’s the most depressing thing that I’ve read. I didn’t mean to imply it’s a bad book (her writing is beautiful!) or that it’s poorly done (she totally sucked me in, which added to why it was depressing). I really felt this book painted a hopeless picture for the exact reason that the bell jar DID descend on Sylvia Plath once more. While that’s not Esther, Esther’s story is first of all Sylvia’s. For Sylvia–and for Esther–there wasn’t enough hope in the world because they did not look to the One who holds it.
Great review! I have heard a lot about this book, mostly that it was a chronicle of Plath’s journey through mental illness. I had not yet read a summary or any opinions on the book. After reading your review I think I might pick this up. Mental illness is one of the topics that interests me in literature, particularly the treatment of such illnesses. I had been operating on the assumption that The Bell Jar was a memoir, not a work of fiction, so it is surprising to find that out as well.
gautami- I’ll definitely read some of her poems. I didn’t think of looking on-line.
bermudaonion- She tells so much in such a short book. too.
Zibilee- I definitely think it’s worth reading. This is actually the second time I’ve read it. I think I read it first in high school or college. Esther’s treatment at a few different hospitals is discussed, both good and bad.
Ronnica- I can see your point. I don’t know that it was the lack of God in her life, though. Mental illness wasn’t treated nearly as well then as it is now and wasn’t as accepted by society.
Even though it is autobiographical, it’s still fiction. She could have chosen to write a straight out autobiography, but she didn’t, so I think we owe it to her to read it as fiction. Just my opinion.
If she had gone on to live a full, productive life, people would tend to see the hopefulness and possibilities in the book. It’s still the same book. That’s probably one of the reasons people are still reading it today. It brings out different reactions in different people.
I’ve been wanting to read this one. Maybe I should pick it up for the classics challenge! Now there’s an idea. I am glad you liked this one–it does sound good.
You’re definitely right about us looking at the book in different ways…that’s why we discuss them, right? I’m really glad I read it, and in many ways enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not one I’ll read again.
Great review of this one Carol. I’ve wanted to read it for a while but haven’t gotten around to it. I’m always interested in novels on mental illness and the treatment of them. I should move this up the list.
Even despite the “doom and gloom” I really hope to read this book soon. I fell in love with Plath’s poetry in college but haven’t read anything else by her. I’ve heard this is a really powerful read and it sounds like it was just that for you. Hope you get a chance to read through some of her poetry–it really is beautiful.
Literary Feline- I thought about joining the classics challenge, but decided against it. I feel like I’m getting too scheduled with my reading as is.
Darlene- It’s interesting to see how treatments have changed in the decades since then, too.
It’s funny that you should mention the food poisoning scene because that’s one of the ones I remembered as being hysterically funny. I recently got rid of my copy of this book (it was a secondhand copy and I hadn’t realized that the previous owner had written all over it, something I can’t stand), but I must get my hands on another copy and read it again!
I agree that there are some funny moments. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be humorous, but I laughed when Buddy took Esther to see a birth and afterwards, when he asked her what she thought, she said that it was wonderful and she could see something like that every day.