Review: The Bell Jar

Book Title: The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Original Publication Date:
Edition Read:
Bantam Windstone Paperback, 1983
Total Pages:
Reason Read:
Found on Mom’s shelves – wondered why I had never read it before
4 out of 5 Stars

I know I have enjoyed a book if, upon completion, I find myself searching out more information about it and the author so that the experience does not end – which is exactly what I did here.

You would think I would want the story of depression and suicidal thoughts to leave me as soon as the last page was over. But this book is really more about the spirit of survival when you are trapped inside yourself and fearful because the rest of the world expects something completely different from you – something you cannot give them.

This is a highly auto-biographical account by Plath of a young college girl finding that when she should be most excited about her life, she instead finds that things aren’t exactly as they seemed and that the culture of the 1950’s doesn’t seem to allow for all that she wants. This transitional time in her life brings her to a period of deep depression and obsession with suicide.

Young Esther Greenwood has landed a dream internship at a NYC fashion magazine and the world seems at her feet.  So why is she so unhappy?  She does not find the world to be as great or exciting or inviting as everyone else around her which causes her to feel like an outsider.  When she is later not accepted into a much anticipated scholarly placement her self-worth is tested and she spirals into herself, which is not a happy place.

I most enjoyed how she places you so well inside the mind of this character’s traumatic experience, but mixes in terrific moments of humor throughout. She also does not seek to assign specific blame or cure for her character’s mental illness – but rather to primarily let us see what it feels like to be in it – as she wrote – “I am I am I am.”  The character observes herself with wonder and a detached sense – giving the reader a guided tour that is quite amazing to witness.

This modern classic is a great example of how quantity is less important than quality.  Plath packs so much depth into the shorter length of her only novel.  As a poet at heart, her words flow beautifully.  The theme of mental illness was not bared so openly in her time and in fact still is not fully appreciated.  Treatment and acceptance have come a long way, but the suffering is still debilitating.

Although the book now feels somewhat dated, for lack of a better word, that is because it was set so specifically in a time and place.  The American world is so drastically different now than the era depicted, which was not that long ago.  This can make it hard for people of my generation to grasp the influences that society had on women in Esther/Plath’s day.  But it can be a good starting point for learning all that came before and the strides others made to make independent thinking women commonplace rather than frowned upon.

I’m glad she shared this work with us but fear that it’s creation might have been her ultimate downfall.  She committed suicide a month after it was published.


About thebumbles

In addition to online Freelance Writing, Molly blogs about books on Quirky Girls Read and about everything else on The Bumbles Blog. Visit her often and let her know what you think! Unless you are a Yankee fan - then there might be a problem ;0)
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22 Responses to Review: The Bell Jar

  1. jehara says:

    Oh Molly, I was really excited when I saw this review slated on the calendar. Sylvia Plath is my favorite poet and this was my favorite book in high school. I devoured anything I could get my hands on regarding her. I’ve read almost all of her poetry and her journals. I even have a recording of her reading one of her poems. She struggled with mental illness practically all of her adult life. Her journals are quite illuminating. She wrote a slate of poems right before she died that are some of her best work. She is definitely one of the people on my list to have dinner with. (You know that question, who are five people, dead or alive, you’d want to have dinner with and pick their brains?)

    • Bumbles says:

      I felt like I had picked her brain after reading this book! I am in awe of the ability certain writers have to place you so fully in another person’s shoes.

  2. Great review of a great book. Thank you for reminding me how much I liked this one.

    • Bumbles says:

      I really did like it – I was hesitant to read it when I first took it off the shelf. People need to know that it isn’t a big depressing read. It is hopeful, funny and moving.

  3. izzybella says:

    This is one of those I have avoided in the past, but I think I will now add to my TBR list. Thanks…

  4. Heather says:

    I also enjoyed this one. It was an amazing insight into mental illness, especially for back then. Seems like true genius and mental illness seem to go hand-in-hand sometimes. Thanks for the great review. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it…want to pick it up again.

  5. Sandy says:

    Never read the book, but I did just win it in a giveaway so I will have no excuse! Great review Molly…you should do this more often!

  6. Annie says:

    I never read this book but I’ll put it on my reading least. Thank you !

  7. Margot says:

    I have avoided this book as I remember when she died and all the talk comparing her suicide with The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath was only eight years older than me and it just felt too personal. Now with the time that has elapsed and your promise that this is “hopeful, funny and moving”, I will have to give it a chance. Excellent review, Molly.

    • Bumbles says:

      Margot – I think you would have a lot more connection to this work given the fact that you grew up in a similar time and are a proponent of women’s issues. I would love to hear what you think.

  8. kaye says:

    I enjoyed your review especially how you found the positive in what must be a difficult subject.

  9. ds says:

    I had forgotten about the lighter moments–thanks for the reminder. Terrific review (I read the same edition back in the day). She tweaked the nerves of many young women in the 60s and 70s, expressing what they or their mothers could not. I still read her poetry.
    Great review.

  10. Staci says:

    I read this a long time ago and remember not caring for it very much. Maybe I should read it again but with an adult perspective???

    • Bumbles says:

      I like to do that – revisit works that are a bit fuzzy at a different point in my life – it is amazing how the same story can create a different impact – it is all relative I suppose.

  11. stacybuckeye says:

    I loved this book and had forgotten it was so short. It did pack quite a punch that stays with you a while.

  12. Lisa says:

    When I started blogging and reading reviews about this book, I knew it was time to pull my copy back out and read it again. The only problem was that, for some reason, I seem not to have kept my copy. Very strange; I generally have kept books I really like. I remember that being the case with this one but maybe at the time that was not my feeling? I’m going to have to pick up another copy.

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