‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath



BLURB: ‘’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.” (Goodreads.com)

READ IF YOU LIKE: semi auto-biographies, themes of mental illness, female version of Catcher in the Rye (?)

PAGE COUNT: Approx.200

STAR RATING: (★★★★☆) – Left me with a deep sense of unhappiness

I am studying Plath’s poetry at school at the moment, so I thought it would be interesting to read her only novel, The Bell Jar, for context. It focuses on Esther Greenwood who suffers from a mental illness of some sort, although it is never revealed specifically what this is. The first half of the book centres on her internship in New York which she has won through a beauty magazine, and the second half on her return to her home town, just outside Boston.

The New York half of the book is filled with descriptions of parties and dresses and fancy dinners, all expenses paid for, which as Esther explains, should make her very happy, but of course doesn’t. She feels dissatisfied in the big city, and after a string of unsuccessful romantic endeavours and drunk evenings she returns to Massachusetts. It is at this point that the reader realises how ill she is. Plath uses the flashy, posh, and free trip to New York perfectly as a way to show that with mental illness, you could be in the dream position and have everything go your way, and yet still feel as if you want your life to end. Shortly after Esther moves home, she is admitted to a mental hospital. Her illness has caused her to become selfish, lonely and as it descends on her more we feel less hopeful for her. I felt like the second half is very very sad, almost depressing, and especially in contrast to the first half, its a bit of a surprise.

Sylvia Plath herself suffered from depression, so this is an extremely auto-biographical book in some ways. You can tell, she is everywhere in the book, all the details of Esther’s life can somehow be traced back to her own. This means that everything is very genuine, there are no misunderstandings and you know Esther’s character has been written by someone who understands her mind. Although both Esther and Plath’s situation is horribly sad, the book is well written, and flows like poetry. However, If you don’t want to read a book about mental illness, or feel as if you would be triggered by descriptions of extreme depression, then I don’t advise you read this book. There are frequent scenes in which Esther expresses her wish to die, and one chapter in which she attempts suicide. I thought it was quite upsetting, but it’s meant to be, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be such a powerful book.