The Bell Jar has always been on my list of books to read, as it’s infamous for being the semi-autobiographical account of author Sylvia Plath. The book describes her through the lens of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who’s seemingly normal life suddenly spirals downhill into sick madness.
Many praised this novel for its feminist traits, revealing how it feels to be in the skin of a woman who doesn’t want to be a maternal martyr; someone who doesn’t want to give up her individual freedom for what every other woman around her seems to live for.
The novel begins with Esther’s winning a scholarship for a fashion magazine, allowing her to live in New York for a month, expenses paid. Instantly we see that Esther is attracted to wealth and decadence, as these are things she has never possessed before. However, she is often repulsed by the young girls around her who aren’t grateful of having lived exotic lives; this is the first instant where we learn that Esther isn’t a jealous or spiteful woman, but simply does not relate at all to other girls her age.
The first half the book describes Esther’s experiences in New York; some pleasant, but mostly dreadful. As Esther rides the train home, and we enter the second half of the book where she’s once again living home in New England, we see a glimpse that Esther’s future isn’t promising. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, we see her start to dissolve into nothingness; she attempts suicide numerous times, until she finally comes deadly close. She is then forced into numerous psychiatric wards, and these events are what inevitably close out the novel.
There have been plenty of novels that since The Bell Jar have described in painstaking detail the morbid coldness of a psych ward experience, and people who’ve been through it may more closely relate with these recent works, as certainly the psychiatric field has changed since 1953. However, Plath’s experience is both personal yet easily relatable. We feel in her body when she’s receiving the electric shock treatments; we feel in her head as she tries to make sense of why death is so appealing; we feel in her heart as she tries to understand what love is, and why she hasn’t even come close to it. Plath clouds Esther’s thoughts with plenty of vivid imagery and similes, and by the book’s completion, we wish it wasn’t over.
Like a twisted foreshadowing, Plath says towards the end of her novel, “How did I know that someday- at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere-the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” Indeed, Plath herself committed suicide in 1963, mere weeks after the novel was published. Many attribute the novel’s popularity to this fact, which seemingly dissolves whatever line was drawn between Plath and Greenwood, making The Bell Jar more like a first-hand account in the mind of the author herself; which perhaps it was.
Nonetheless, Plath created something unique in her day, proving that madness wasn’t just reserved for men and murderers, but, like death, could descend on anyone at any given moment.
Says Plath of what she expected from the contents of this novel, “…The pressures of the fashion magazine world which seems increasingly superficial and artificial, the return home to the dead summer world of a suburb of Boston. Here the cracks in her (Esther’s) nature which had been held together as it were by the surrounding pressures of New York widen and gape alarmingly. More and more her warped view of the world around- her own vacuous domestic life, and that of her neighbors- seems the one right way of looking at things.”
Here are some quotes that especially appealed to me:
From the Forward by Frances McCullough:
“Although her illness was never actually diagnosed, several researchers in the field have noted Plath’s unerring description of schizophrenic perception: a hallway becomes a menacing tunnel, a person approaching has an enormity that threatens to engulf the viewer the closer they come, objects loom out of all proportion, the alphabet letters on a page become impossible to decipher, and virtually everything seems both unreal and dangerous.”
From the novel:
“A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.”
“I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies…But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.”
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”