I found the book ‘The Bell Jar,’ written by Sylvia Plath to be a rare, personal and privileged insight into the life and psyche of Sylvia Plath. The book recently reached its 50th anniversary and is widely recognised to be a semi-autobiographical look into her struggle with mental illness and her desire to commit suicide, which she did in 1963 by placing her head in a gas oven.
I studied Sylvia Plath’s poetry in Literature at high school and found her fascinating. Reading this novel by her, about a protagonist Esther Greenwood, a woman in her early 20s, struggle with her mental health and her pathway in life was absolutely captivating. Esther is an incredibly relatable character who normalises mental illness and would have diligently taken the stigma from depression for that time. Throughout her struggle, she maintains to be an endearing character with dark and witty humour.
Read further for an analysis, including spoilers.
Sylvia Plath came from Boston and her father past away when she was young, as did the protagonist Esther. Like Esther, Sylvia Plath won an internship at a magazine in New York. Like Esther, Sylvia Plath was rejected to get into a creative writing course. Like Esther, Sylvia Plath told her mother she was going for a long walk then tried to attempt suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills in their basement. Plath also went through a course of ECT for her depression.
When Esther decides she wants to write a book; ‘My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.’ Sylvia Plath initially published the book under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ so that her mother wouldn’t know this story about her. When critiquing the Bell Jar, you cannot deny that this book is a personal anecdote of Sylvia’s experience.
Sylvia Plath just like Esther tried countless times to attempt suicide. The Bell Jar is heart breaking considering that Sylvia eventually committed suicide.
I’ve read lots of reviews who say that not separating Plath’s life from this book is limiting the quality of her art. However, I completely disagree. I think every author does – and should – insert themselves into their work. To write a book reflecting the author’s life is the greatest form of self-expression, openness and honesty. Plath has bravely opened up her soul and given the reader an incredibly raw and personal account of her life. And I think writing this brutally honest about mental health in the 60s – exposing the reality of this taboo topic – is one of the most courageous acts an author could have done.
The character beautifully develops from an intern at a luxurious fashion magazine but when she returns to her hometown and isn’t accepted into summer school, her self-worth begins to fall in a downward spiral.
Esther’s mentality was captured in the imagery used; ‘…I didn’t feel like ending up in an empty barn of a ballroom strewn with confetti and cigarette-butts and crumpled cocktail napkins’. And the setting of the city didn’t help her state either; ‘The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of the silence. It was my own silence. I knew perfectly well the cards were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for all the good it did me’.
The lavish and extravagant meals Esther had as an intern foreshadow and juxtapose the meal at the asylum. Esther, who loves food ‘more than just about anything else’ had an in-depth internal dialogue at the beginning about the bowls of caviar on the table and her strategic attempt to eat as much of it as possible. Later in the book, in the asylum, she is in the company of patients tipping their food all over the floor, one lady yelling, laughing and making rude gestures, unappetising food and a man who tries to collect their plates before they’re done.
Esther describes her friend Joan as ‘her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own’ and she was there to remind Esther of ‘what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.’ And then, eerily later in the book, Joan hung herself, which we now know foreshadows the fact that Plath committed suicide.
Mental health quotes
‘I felt very low… I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspensions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer. After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort or another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.’
‘I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.’
‘I felt like a racehorse in a world without race- tracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone.’
Esther told the nurse that she was sick and the nurse was taking her temperature. ‘I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything.’
‘Wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’
She describes a beautiful metaphor about a fig tree, and that each branch represented a different pathway she could go down in life. Plath conveys that the protagonist (and I believe Plath herself), was terrified of, ‘sitting at the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death’ because she couldn’t decide which branch to take, which direction to take in her life. She wanted all of road but felt that she could only choose one, and as she took her time to decide which way to go ‘the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.’ She then realised that this image and thought ‘might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach’ (I love her, seamlessly going from extremely deep to hilarious, she is the greatest).
‘All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the full gulf of summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.’
In the end of the book Esther says all women ‘sat under bell jars of some sort’ and didn’t know if ‘the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, (would) descend again.’
Esther (and Plath) was a bad-ass feminist for her time who was crippling under the pressure from society. Esther – and Plath – were extremely intelligent and innovative perspective of life and the expectations of women in the 60s was smothering her.
She said marriage seemed ‘dreary and a wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight As’, but she knew marriage would be an expectation to ‘cook and clean and wash’ as it was just what ‘Buddy Willards mother did from morning to night.’ Esther said that all men wanted was for the ‘wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard’s kitchen mat.’
‘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 to change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.’
Marriage and children was ‘like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.’
‘Children made me sick.’
‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.’
And finally this book was more captivating as I understood it is a classic, it stands the test of time. I am reminded of the ideology of that era with the following references:
Old references quotes
‘Usually it was a shrunken old white man that brought our food, but today it was a negro. The negro was with a woman in blue stiletto heels, and she was telling him what to do. The negro kept chuckling in a silly way.’
‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ Doctor Nolan leaned back in the armchair next to my bed.’
I definitely recommend any woman interested in Sylvia Plath and mental health to give this book a read. It’s a classic for a reason.
I give this book 3 and a half stars out of 5.