The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Some books are difficult to read, albeit their uncomplicated, easy-to-read language, because you realise how close the story is to the authors life. It’s one thing to read about a character going mad, suffering, the world around her growing darker with each day; it’s another to know that the author had experienced it firsthand.

All authors bring something from themselves and their lives to their work. But semi-autobiographical novels like this one have always made me feel like I’m snooping through someone’s diary without permission.

The Bell Jaris is Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel which was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963. It follows the main character, a young  and bright woman named Ester Greenwood, through her year where in the first half of the books she is doing fine, trying to find her way through life and at the second half we see her mental state declining, getting more and more lost every day.

The thing about the main character, Ester, is that she is socially unconventional; she feels like an outside not rather because of the choices she make but because of the ones she refuses to make.  Plath doesn’t just take us on a journey with Ester as she gradually loses all contact with the world around her but she shows us what it means to be a young, mart women with ambitions during those times and how it’s the choices you do not make that comes to haunt you rather than the ones you do make.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a flat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and SOUTH America and another fig was Constantine and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

 I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Plath, being one of the most brilliant poets the world have ever seen, knows how to explain emotions like despair, disappointment,
self-destruction, detachment in vivid and striking imagery such as this one. The book, as we can see from the passage, was written in first person point of view, which gives us unlimited access to Ester’s mind.

We witness Ester coming home after her summer internship at the New York City magazine and follow her through the rabbit hole as she struggles to find out who she is, what she wants to do with her life and watch her as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her expectations from her life does not align with what the society expects from a young woman her age. And her mother is a big part of that ‘society’. She continuously expects her to be “alright” and fit the norms of society and eventually helps Ester reach her breaking point.

People often state that this novel begins so normal and then go crazy… What Plath does here is that she doesn’t just allow us to see what goes through Ester’s head when she is at her worst but allows us to see how the situation had built up to that point. We witness how Ester’s mantel health starts showing cracks, then begins to come crumbling down. We don’t meet a girl who is already mentally ill; we follow her through the road as she takes a turn for the worst. And inevitably, that gives the story a whole new dimension and adds depth. But there is also the other thing- by showing how “normal” Ester was and then how she was not, I think Plath is trying to indicate just how tangible our mental states are. One day you think you’re alright and the next day you realise just how wrong you were.

The last thing I’d like to discuss about this novel would be its ending. Plath, after all the struggle Ester had to go through, leaves us hopeful for her future. Throughout the book this feeling of hope leaks through the pages which is one of my favourite things about this story. Even at her darkest moments you think “Wait a minute, she will get through this.” You inevitably care for Ester, you root for her and as she walks through that door for the last time to hear her final verdict at the mental hospital we hope that they will rule for her release because we want to see her getting well and taking her life back. Be happy. We never get to hear what they decide; but we finish the book with the feeling that she’s going to be alright. I think a hopeful ending fits very nicely with the general tone of the story. (But something to keep in mind while reading this book: Plath committed suicide two months after the book was published.)

       A bad dream.

      To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

      A bad dream.

      I remembered everything.

      …

      Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them.

      But they were part of me. They were my landscape.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

faber and faber

first published in 1963

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10 thoughts on “The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. Nymeth says:

    It’s been a very long time since I read this, but I remember the snooping around someone’s diary feeling you speak of so well.

  2. Thank you Ana. The first time I read this book, many years ago, I remember feeling like I was reading some story of a crazy-woman :)) I read it again last year and it was like I was reading another book; it was not at all how I remembered it to be.
    A very dark yet captivating novel which is exactly what you’d expect of Plath.

  3. Amy says:

    Big Plath fan here. I can’t help but wonder, if she hadn’t died, what kind of searing fiction she would have gone on to write.

  4. Emma says:

    Great review, you give a thoughtful vision of the book. I read it a while back and I remember the feeling you describe: I was with her in this, wanting her to heal and go on with a happy life.
    As a woman, I side with her against the crushing yoke of a society that wanted women at home with a husband and children.

  5. Emma says:

    PS: I love your Little Prince gravatar. I’ve read it again this summer and I had forgotten how great and peaceful it is.

    • Thank you Emma, I’m glad you liked the review :) Plath knows how to make us care for her main character, doesn’t she?
      The Little Prince was the first book I actually remember reading! I think it’ll be OK to say that his story is to blame for my book obsession today :)

  6. I read this book at the beginning of the year as part of my Mental Illness Advocacy reading challenge, and I had very mixed emotions about it. I can’t really say I enjoyed it but not because it wasn’t well written or that it didn’t touch me, but because I found it to be a very difficult subject to read about. At the end though I found it was a very worth while read.

  7. Athira says:

    I read this book last year and was incredibly moved by it. There is a sentence at the end of the book that made me feel very sad, because it was almost like Plath predicted her own death.

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