It is impossible to read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath without her real-life context coloring the story. Sylvia Plath published this semi-autobiographical work under a pseudo-name, but she wasn’t there to witness it when the work gained widespread momentum under her real name. Plath had killed herself less than a month after The Bell Jar hit the shelves.
The Bell Jar is the story of Esther’s 20th year, drawing a parallel to Sylvia Plath’s. The reader witnesses insight into depression and mental illness through Esther and her sufferings. It is about the crisis of identity, sexuality, social norms, and a story of survival.
Esther is a straight-A student who has got the opportunity to be the guest-editor of a teenage magazine in New York. It is from this place that Esther begins to feel alienated like trapped in a bell jar from the world around her and from her world within. Every woman around her desires the conventional straight-normal hood: get married to a rich husband, socially worthy groom, and bear his children. But Esther has ambitions and personal aspirations exclusive of this conventionality.
Along with this, Esther realizes that the laurels she has garnered all her life in school & college institutions hold no value or meaning in the real world. When faced with challenges of the world without a protective bubble of college, Esther finds herself ill-equipped to handle them well:
“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.”
When Esther returns to her home, she finds out she has been rejected from a writing course she desperately wanted to be a part of. Depressed that she is not good enough, she drops out of college. Her illness begins to transpire in intensity, and her mother has to take her to a psychiatrist, where she suffers unnecessary shock treatments. It is at this point that the reader gets a deep insight into the mind of someone who is suffering from depression. Esther doesn’t feel sad, she feels empty:
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
After the shock treatments, Esther attempts suicide. Fortunately, her trial fails and an old lady who is a fan of her writing decides to sponsor her treatment in a better mental institution, where they don’t give shock therapy to patients, where the old lady had herself undergone therapy:
“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.”
Esther, yearning to be a poet, slowly weaves a road to her recovery. She knows that writing is the one thing she cannot live without and decides to pursue it after all:
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
But the ending of the novel is bittersweet. Esther knows that the paws of this illness might not leave her all her life. She might have to be always vigilant, always prepared to fight another battle for survival. As the reader knows, the ending isn’t happy for Plath.
One of my favorite passages in the whole book is when Esther notices the ripe fig tree and uses the figs as a metaphor for all the sister lives that she could live and her inability to choose any:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a 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 Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat 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.”
Shortcomings of “The Bell Jar”
The book’s story is sensitive, powerful, and shattering. But there are some things about the writing style that aren’t as perfect:
1. The novel feels more like prose poetry than a story. It can be a little hard to keep up with and connect all the dots of the story.
2. The first half of the book can be a little slow to read. The second half is much more intriguing.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is hard to read without the taint of her personal life. Despite that, this book is a wonderful insight into people’s hearts who are suffering from mental illnesses. It might not be a pleasant read, but some books need to make the reader a little uncomfortable to fulfill their purpose – and The Bell Jar is undoubtedly one of them.
Find this book on Amazon here.