BOOK REVIEW: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (3.5 stars)

the-bell-jarVerdict: Multi-layered, symbolic representation of the descent into depression. Well-written but – perhaps purposefully – a little distant.

I recently surprised myself by realising, after twenty-five years of reading books, I had never read The Bell Jar, nor had any notion of what it was about. So I set about fixing that.

The story is a non-linear telling of the life of Esther Greenwood, a 19-year old woman who has won scholarships, prizes and awards all her life, but doesn’t feel connected to anything around her. She’s presumed engaged to a vile man called Buddy Willard, but has no affection for him – and has only not broken off the engagement because he’s currently dying of TB, so she can’t ditch him until he’s better.

She’s coming to the end of a month in New York, where the whole world is meant to open up in front of her, but she can’t seem to appreciate it. She’s acutely aware that something is different about her but can’t seem to shake herself out of the staleness of her very own bell jar. 

On a personal level, I connected with Esther. I once spent six months in a similar stale muck from which I couldn’t extract myself, nor did I want to. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to try. Esther’s opinion of traditional marriage is likewise similar to my own; as much as I like children (Esther doesn’t – that is a big difference!) I can’t abide the thought of “submitting to a man” or giving up my career; life; self just because I’ve had kids, as we see in the example of Mrs. Willard. Her sense of individual worth, at least on the surface, is strong, which makes her descent into depression all the more sudden and startling when it happens.

The prose was as I would expect from a modern classic; beautiful and lyrical in its own right. The symbolism scattered through the narrative was a welcome return to Plath, with whom I was familiar mainly through her poetry previous to Bell Jar. My particular favourites were that of Joan and the vaginal tear.

Joan, to me at least, represented that acquaintance we all have, who we think of when things go wrong in our life and we wonder ‘why is their life so easy?’. The answer is: it isn’t easy. Joan is somewhat of a foil to Esther in the latter stages of the book. Seen as a rival and the antithesis of Esther at the beginning, it is revealed that Joan has also suffered depression and has, like Esther, tried (and failed) to take her own life. Esther’s opinion of Joan was previously formed according to the perception Joan allowed the outside world to have; the same outward mask Esther herself maintained until her failed suicide attempt. The continuing double-standard of perception versus reality is one of the strengths of Bell Jar.

The vaginal tear was the most powerful of plot symbols for me. Having spent much of the narrative thinking about how best to kill herself, Esther finds herself bleeding heavily – a wound from which she could quite possibly die. Her reaction is to seek medical help to fix the problem – proof that her bell jar has lifted and she has regained the will to continue living.

Despite its obvious literary merits – and The Bell Jar is definitely worthy of its status as a classic on those alone – the novel left me feeling somewhat cold. Part of me thinks that this is purposeful, that the would-be hopeful ending falling flat is indicative of the nature of depression. It never truly goes away. Esther leaving the asylum is, to my mind, somewhat premature. She doesn’t seem to be, from the narrative, ‘cured’ – but maybe that’s the point. Can you ever be ‘cured’ of depression?

“How did I know that someday-at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere-the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” 

As a novel, I would say it’s definitely well worth the time it takes to read. I would even consider it enlightening, but I didn’t enjoy except on a literary and technical basis (a bit like Ulysses). I wasn’t really expecting Bell Jar to be enjoyable, due to the nature of the book, but it left me feeling like I’d read it at a great distance. One sentence keeps coming back to me when I think of how to explain it, and I’ve realised I can’t describe it any better than this:

“I tried to think… but my mind slipped the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.”

So, read it. Love it. I did. But don’t necessarily expect to like it. They’re two very different things.


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