Author: Sylvia Plath
Publisher: Faber and Faber Limited
Publishing Date: 1966
Number of Pages: 234 pages
Genre: Autobiographical, Psychological
Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.
Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health
I first came across Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar while doing must-read challenges. I keep encountering Plath’s book on many of these lists. When I researched more about the author, I learned that The Bell Jar is her only novel because she committed suicide shortly after the book’s publication. Now it has my full attention as I am invested in stories about mental health. I just hope that the book won’t disappoint the way Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why did.
But then again, Sylvia Plath is on a whole new league. Still, I approached the story with some apprehension. Yes, I know what I was going into. But what I didn’t expect was how riveted I was going to be by both Plath’s wonderful storytelling and the compelling plot that she conjured.
A summer internship in a prominent magazine in the world’s premier city, New York, sounds enticing. Everyone would grab the opportunity. But Esther Greenwood is not like everybody else. A fine young woman from the suburbs of Boston, she was offered this opportunity. Rather than look forward to the experience and be enthused by it, what she felt instead was a burgeoning fear.
Thankfully, she got Doreen as a roommate. Esther’s polar opposite, Doreen was loaded with witty sarcasm and adventurousness that was a whole new world to Esther. Esther relates all her experiences while she was an intern. When she returned to Massachusetts, she was already in low spirits. Her spirits dipped further when she learned she was not accepted to a writing course she was pining to join. Downhill. Everything went downhill from there.
“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.” ~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Let me start this review by stating the obvious. Mental health is a universal subject. Anyone can be affected – your parents, your friend, the beautiful stranger you passed by when you were going home. It is no phenomenon. It is a reality. But sadly, it is a taboo subject that society tends to turn its back on.
So what is this bell jar?
When Esther found herself admitted to a mental institution, she described her life as being locked in a proverbial “bell jar”. Born in a highly (toxic) patriarchal American society, Esther is expected to become a housewife and a self-sufficient woman. Independence is out of the question. This lack of choice made her feel incarcerated figuratively, hence the reference to being locked up in a bell jar. Plath carefully painted a chilling picture of a young woman who was on her way to a complete mental breakdown.
This incarceration made Esther embark on a journey to forge her own identity. She was afraid that being stuck with domestic duties would make her lose her inner self. The narrative examines Esther’s quest “to be herself rather than what others expect her to be.” She was filled with questions about herself and about the things that were happening around her. The search for one’s identity is also integral in the narrative.
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” ~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Why does Esther’s story have a resounding quality?
Esther knew something was wrong within her but cannot point it out. Something is wrong but to admit it to everyone would make everyone think she is neurotic. Even her doctor and her mother downplayed her “neurotic episodes”. These are things of imagination which the 1960s medical world deemed can be set right with shock treatments.
The general public’s understanding of mental health is very lacking. That holds true even today. Plath aptly depicted how deficient the response to mental health and mental health issues is. It is talked about only in hushed tones when it should be talked about openly. For fear of public condemnation and ridicule, most of those who suffer from mental health issues tend to deal it in their own, keeping everyone guessing and masking the emptiness they feel with manufactured and practiced smile. It is time to talk about mental health, depression and suicide.
Beyond the disturbing subject, Plath conjured a haunting voice that is audible through the din. Esther’s voice possesses a depth that rings through the cavernous oblivion and leaves a lasting impact. Her voice leaves very little to the imagination. It has a very similar quality to Madeline Miller’s Circe. You can most certainly distinguish their voices in the din. It is a triumph for the story and Plath because it is these small facets that tend to elevate narratives. As is the case for Miller and for Plath.
Through the pages of the novel, Plath related her own story. The novel contained several autobiographical elements. In her stead was Esther, her alter ego. The tangents in their individual life stories are too uncanny not to be noticed – their struggles, their personalities and their quest for independence. Reading the novel is like reading pages of Sylvia Plath’s life. One cannot avoid merging the two stories together, which could be challenging. But Plath’s narrative flowed so well that this is barely noticeable.
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.” ~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Being locked inside the bell jar is a thing of nightmares. I would never dream being inside it.
But Plath’s writing prowess was so captivating I was drawn in. I was given me a glimpse of Plath’s mind and a piece of her story. People think that the decision to take one’s life is abrupt. The truth is that it is a slow and long progress that inevitably swirls into a period when nothing feels bearable anymore. Anyone who’ve been through depressive cycles would easily relate to Esther’s (and, consequently, Plath’s) story.
I love everything about the book. The subjects it highlighted are dark and heavy although universal. Esther’s voice was so real and Plath’s writing was just impeccable. Here’s something I have found out after reading the book: the book contained intricate description of Plath’s first suicide attempt in 1953, when she was just 20-years-old.
In spite of the dark subject, the novel gave glimmers of hope; there were suggestions in the book that Esther later on bore a child. There is still hope for everyone. Sylvia Plath, Esther Greenwood and The Bell Jar will surely remain with me. They have such lasting impact.
P.S. Mental health is a subject that is very dear to me, and perhaps that is the very reason why the novel plucked the proverbial strings of my heart. It made me ruminate not just on who I am but also on the mental state of the people around me. Is there something amiss? On many levels, Esther’s story and her struggles is everyone’s story.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. When her brother was born, the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts.
Plath attended Bradford Senior High School (now Wellesley High School) in Wellesley. It was just shortly after graduating from high school that Plath had her first national publication in the Christian Science Monitor. She then went on to attend Smith College, majoring in English. Several of her experiences in college inspired some incidents in her only novel, The Bell Jar. It was also during her college years that Plath attempted her first suicide.
Plath went to Newnham College, one of two women-only colleges of the University of Cambridge in England, after obtaining a Fulbright scholarship. There, she pursued her passion for writing. Plath’s passion for writing begun at a very early age. She started writing poetry from the age of eight with her first poem appearing in the Boston Traveler. She wrote so many poems and short stories that by the time she Smith College, she already had 50 short stories and poems published in various publications.
Plath’s first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in the UK in late 1960s. Her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963 under a pseudonym. Several weeks later, Plath committed suicide. Several of her works, like Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1971) were published posthumously.
“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.” ~ Sylvia Plath