The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This is not a happy story. “The Bell Jar” does not leave you feeling uplifted, or inspired, or really much of anything at all. It honestly was a book that left me feeling numb. Sylvia Plath writes so that the reader can look through her eyes as she goes through the trials of being a woman suffering from mental illness the 1960s. She approaches the story with stark honesty, holding nothing back in a brutal examination of the progression of life events.
This is a book that I would suggest to anyone wanting to gain insight on mental illness or perspective on the time period. If you are looking for a light read however, this is the wrong book for you.
The plot is based on a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s life before, during and after her first suicide attempt. What makes this book so important is the history behind it because when looking at what transpired shortly after the book’s publication, there is an aspect where Plath foreshadowed her own death. Plath published “The Bell Jar” in London in January 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. In February of that year, Plath succeeded in her second attempt at suicide at age 31.
“The Bell Jar” takes us back in time, telling her story about the end of her college year. The first part begins with Esther Greenwood, a high achieving college student from Massachusetts, living in New York to work on a magazine for a month as an intern guest editor. Esther and eleven other college girls live in a women’s hotel. While living in New York, Esther goes through many different experiences and views her fellow student interns with some distance. She explores what her choice drink would be at a bar while trying to forget Buddy Willard, her college boyfriend who is recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium. Buddy wants to marry Esther when he regains his health.
But, Buddy does not understand Esther’s desire to write poetry, and when he confesses to something he did, Esther decides that she cannot marry him and sets out to lose her virginity, approaching the issue as if it is simply something to get over with.
There is a distinct change in the story when Esther comes home from New York. This is where her life starts to spiral and every event leading up to her attempted suicide comes into bright focus. From here she goes through treatments that include shock therapy and an assortment of drugs. She is misdiagnosed and never truly recovers.
Again, “The Bell Jar” is not a happy book, but it does give the reader a very real perspective. Plath does a beautiful job of developing characters that mirror Esther, tying her story together with vivid imagery. She keeps you paying close attention to every interaction and event. Though Plath is a great poet, her only novel reflects a more blunt side to her writing. This is both a strength and a weakness to this book.
The bell jar that the book is titled after becomes becomes very apparent by the end. There is no satisfying conclusion, because it is an honest account. By the end, you are simply left repeating “I am, I am, I am.”