The Bell Jar is a work of fiction and the first and only novel written by Sylvia Plath. It is set in America in the 1950s and is about Esther Greenwood, a young woman who wins an internship at a New York fashion magazine. Esther is elated about this initially as she dreams of becoming a writer. However, she also notices a kind of apathy towards her day-to-day life. Eventually, following a setback where she does not get into community college for writing, Esther’s depression is triggered and she spirals drastically.
We follow Esther’s journey through this depression where she has sleepless nights, has no appetite, avoids social contact as much as she can, is paranoid about everyone’s motives, doubts her own abilities, thinks she will never amount to anything and attempts suicide. She is admitted into an asylum (as it was known back in the day) and administered electroconvulsive therapy (as was the main therapeutic approach for depression back then). Through all this, she struggles to make sense of how hard it is for a woman in a man’s world and why men get to do certain things but women cannot. And most importantly to her, struggling to be taken seriously in a society where women’s aspirations and dreams are not given much importance.
This book by Sylvia Plath was first published under a pseudonym only weeks before her own suicide. There are theories that The Bell Jar is actually a semi-autobiographical work given that Plath herself suffered from depression and ultimately ended her own life at the age of 30 by sticking her head in the oven and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
For me, given that I knew Plath’s history and that the book was based on her own life in some ways made it a lot more interesting. The description of Esther’s mental health is so accurate one has to be a psychologist or psychiatrist or actually dealing with the same problem to be able to write about it in the manner that Plath has. You can literally feel Esther’s low mood and flatness oozing through the pages. You can see her hopelessness even though rationally you understand that it’s not the end of the world for her. You can see how she convinces herself why she must end her life. And you feel sorry for her. You want her to get better. You want her to be able to get out of the asylum and achieve her goals and dreams. The writing style can be a bit difficult to get in that it almost seems like free-writing in some instances and you get the sense the story moves on depending on the author’s mood. Having said that, it’s still a pretty easy read and kept me hooked to the end.
I give it 4 stars but I will warn you there is a feeling of emptiness associated with the book. Possibly due to the extensive insight into a person’s depression.
Until next time,