Book Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Original Publication Date: 1963
Edition Read: Bantam Windstone Paperback, 1983
Total Pages: 224
Reason Read: Found on Mom’s shelves – wondered why I had never read it before
Rating: 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.