The Bell Jar made it onto The List partly due to its reputation as a great feminist novel and partly due to the intrigue that surrounds it as an insight into the personal life and struggles of its author, Sylvia Plath. Plath, poet and wife of fellow writer, Ted Hughes, famously killed herself in 1963 having suffered from clinical depression for most of her adult life. Many have seen The Bell Jar as semi autobiographical in its depiction of mental illness, particularly depression, which overcomes its young female protagonist, Esther.
The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a middle class, intelligent college student from Boston who is spending the summer as an intern at a women’s magazine in New York. Despite her talents and perceived success, however, Esther gradually becomes disillusioned with her life in New York and the place she is expected to occupy in society. Through a series of experiences that range from the professional, sexual, social and individual, Esther falls into depression as she questions the ideals for women that are held up to her by society. The novel follows Esther’s mentality as she descends further into depression and becomes increasingly suicidal; told from her point of view, it also illustrates the particular triggers for some of her more erratic behaviour.
I have a confession to make in that when I first started reading The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were sort of merged in my mind to create one author, embarrassing as that is to admit. So, I therefore assumed that The Bell Jar was going to be a heavy stream of consciousness, difficult to follow and a book that would require a lot of concentration and close attention while reading. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Bell Jar was a lot easier to read than I imagined. Written from Esther’s point of view, the narrative is rather erratic as it directly reflects her mental state; it jumps around a bit as she recalls different experiences from her past, many of which do not seem directly relevant to the main flow of the story. They’re small flashbacks which serve to demonstrate, I think, Esther’s distracted and slightly manic mental state. Despite this, however, I still found it relatively easy to keep up with the flow of the narrative and to understand what point in time was being dealt with at the time.
Esther’s depression seems to come from her dissatisfaction of the choices she is offered in life as a woman, and from a lack of understanding of her purpose. She’s intelligent and academic, but instead of believing that this opens up many doors for her, she feels more and more uncertain about what to do in life once the exams and institutions of school and college are behind her. She panics that her academic achievements are the height of her success, and she will be unable to match that performance in the ‘real world’. The glitzy New York lifestyle seems dull to her, and she wants to rise above her intern position, dreaming of writing stories to be published within it, rather than editing them. Likewise, Esther finds it had to reconcile her sexuality with her expected behaviour as eligible wife material. She rebels against being pigeon-holed into this desexualised Madonna-like role and seeks out situations to disassociate herself with this perception.
I enjoyed The Bell Jar because, despite its setting in the 1950s, it is still pertinent to today’s society. I identified with Esther’s struggle to find the path in life that will give her satisfaction. Plath’s famous analogy of the fig tree of opportunity still now offers a powerful depiction of the pressure that faces talented and bright individuals to make the right choice in the application of their skills. The weight of expectation, particularly on the young and educated, has never been so heavy as it is today, as we are constantly bombarded with messages of striving for more, and not wasting our precious, privileged youth. This novel serves to remind us that this pressure can lead us not only to question decisions made under the overwhelming prospect of countless options, but also that it can cause more deep and serious depression should we feel we have made the wrong choices or not lived up to the very high expectations that society seems to have placed upon us. Sometimes an abundance of options can have just as problematic consequences as an insufficiency.
The Bell Jar also plays a part as a feminist text due to its identification of the stereotypical roles expected of women, and how these can lead to a crisis of identity when one feels they don’t ‘belong’ in the box that has been assigned to them. The contrast of the sexual experience Esther has with Buddy – clinical, cold and businesslike – with those of others throughout the book – stimulating, passionate and even dangerous – is a clear portrayal of how female sexuality is often regarded as only acceptable in women who are not ‘marriage material’. Esther’s curiosity in this area and doubt around this expectation of her behaviour leads her to explosively reject her virginal path through dangerous and increasingly manic behaviour.
Although it’s been said by many that this book would not have received nearly as much acclaim were it not for the tragic suicide of its author just one month after its UK publication, I’m glad that it has received that recognition. All too often depression is regarded as an illness that comes about from a specific distressing event, series of traumas or general lack of opportunity in life, but The Bell Jar shows us that even those who are gifted with love, choice and talent can be affected. The in-depth detail of Esther’s progressively isolated mentality and disillusionment with her reality is both poignant and educational to those who are fortunate enough not to have had to deal with depression. I think this novel is a work of great strength from Sylvia Plath, particularly given the stigma surrounding mental illness. We can all learn a lot from reading this novel and realising, as Esther does towards the end of the novel, that The Bell Jar of depression can descend on anyone at any time.
It’s not the most uplifting or feel good novel that you’ll ever read, nor is it the most gripping, but it’s so different to many other books out there that it’s well worth picking up.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥