Sylvia Plath wrote many incredible poems and one brilliant book, ‘The Bell Jar,’ before she unfortunately passed away in the 1960s. In fact, the anniversary of her death was only a few weeks ago- which contributed to me finally getting this review published!
‘The Bell Jar’ is about a young woman in 1950s American battling with mental health problems and depression, problems that are not helped by the society she lives in and the role she is forced to fill within that society as a woman.
From the very first line of the book it is obvious that Esther Greenwood (the main character of the book) is facing some pretty strong mental concerns, and the reader gets to follow these as Esther works her way through the book.
Throughout the book there are clear parallels between Esther and Plath’s life, with Esther undergoing the same treatment as Plath and having the same life experiences and thoughts (according to her diary).
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”
The book starts with Esther reflecting on her time working for a fashion magazine in New York, something that she should enjoy as an aspiring writer. However, she soon starts to feel depressed and alone, wondering why she feels so lost and sad when she should be having ‘the time of her life’ as others are. This reflects the society of the time, with Esther feeling constrained by the role of the ‘perfect woman’ that she is forced to fill.
As the novel moves on, it is clear that Esther has many issues, especially with the roles of men and women– and pregnancy.
Esther has an on-and-off boyfriend, Buddy, who she sees as being the ‘perfect’ college boy, and when she finds out that he is not a virgin- and yet would expect his wife to be when he marries her- she becomes hung up on the ‘purity’ and morals of men and women. This leads to her wanting to lose her virginity, thinking this will give her liberation from the constraints on women and their sexual relationships.
She also has obsessions about having children and trying to fit the role of both ‘career woman’ and ‘perfect mother’, which is a problem that can still be identified in today’s society all these years later.
“I was perfectly free.”
Eventually, Esther’s problems become too much for her and she attempts suicide. After her attempted suicide she is given ECT and, eventually, is admitted to a mental hospital for further supervision and treatment.
In this hospital, the reader can see all the other women who have faced problems in society- and the way that appearances do not always match reality. In fact, I would argue that this book is a key novel about hidden mental illness and a coming-of-age tale for a young American woman.
Although clearly Esther has some difficult issues to face, I thought that Plath wrote the book in a very accessible and relatable way, so that even for a woman living in the twentieth century, the constraints Esther faces are just as real and relatable. For me, the book was interesting and, although it tackled difficult and not always pleasant issues, I found it enjoyable to read.
It is also one of those books that I would argue should be considered a classic read, but it is still easy to read and accessible for everyone.
I also think there’s something so real and raw about Plath’s writing that comes across to the reader, perhaps because the book is largely autobiographical.
I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone. I think that possibly it could be more relatable for women than men, as it reflects some genuine issues that women still face in society. For example, Esther discusses trying to balance being the ‘perfect mother’ with the ‘perfect job’ and I’m sure that every woman in this position can identify with the issues Plath presents.
In a way, this is both positive and negative, as it shows that Plath’s writing relates to the universal woman- whereas some classics are very stuck in their times- but it also suggests that the position of women has not fully improved, as even now ideas about women are very similar to those expressed in the novel.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the book, where Esther has just witnessed a woman give birth (which she views with disgust, contradicting what society deems to be ‘normal’ feminine maternal instincts) and finds out that the drug used makes a woman forget her pain, rather than take it away, so she will still have more children:
“It sounded like the sort of drug a man would invent.”
Happy reading x
Picture credits here