Sylvia Plath wrote many incredible poems and one brilliant book, ‘The Bell Jar,’ before she unfortunately committed suicide. In fact, the anniversary of her death was only a few weeks ago, which kind of contributed towards me finally publishing this review!
‘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.
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 issues and the reader gets to follow these as they work their 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 quirks.
“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, 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.
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, she becomes hung up on the ‘purity’ and morals of men and women, which eventually leads to her wanting to lose her virginity, thinking this will give her liberation from the constraints on women in society.
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 (this isn’t really a spoiler- if you know anything about Plath’s life you will know this happened to her also- and it happens relatively early on in the book). After her attempted suicide she is given ECT and, eventually, is admitted to a mental hospital.
In this hospital, the reader can see all the other women who faced problems in society and the way that appearances (of the perfect college woman, for example), do not always match reality. In fact, I would argue that this book is a key mental illness and coming of age text.
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, but is still really 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 basically an autobiography of her life.
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, such as balancing being the ‘perfect mother’ with the ‘perfect job’ and I’m sure that every woman 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, even if Esther does take them to the extreme in some bouts of her depression.
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