Book Review: The Bell Jar

This book is both astounding and terrifying. I had heard a lot about this book and received mixed reviews. It seems that people either HATE it or LOVE it. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. I also found that people who were younger when they read it loved it a lot more than people who were older. Perhaps it is a life experience thing and not an age issue. Most of my friends are in their mid-twenties and, to be honest, don’t have that much life experience yet. Perhaps it’s just that younger people can better remember how difficult being a teenager can be and how hard going through University was. Anyways, The Bell Jar is VERY dark. Sylvia Plath writes about topics that no one wanted to even mention during the time she was writing (the 1960s).

The Bell Jar focuses on the life of Esther Greenwood. It seems to me that the book is divided into distinct sections of her life, but you can always see how things just aren’t quite right for Esther. Even when she describes her school years, she focuses on her studies and has zero-to-no socialization. There seems to be a lack of interest at some parts, but also an inability to fit in at others. The beginning of the novel focuses on Esther’s “internship” at a New York magazine. Once there, however, she takes very little interest in actually working on the magazine and instead concerns herself with boys and social events. We then find a clear shift as soon as Esther returns to her mother’s home. She is no longer herself. She is unable to eat, sleep, and most importantly to her, read and write. She cannot focus and eventually attempts to kill herself. This results in Esther being sent to an asylum. Once here, Esther encounters some colourful characters and we learn more about her life in the asylum. She is treated in a “sub-human” way and even endures “shock treatments.” As a Psychology major, I am appalled that anyone ever thought this would work. What whack job thought that shocking someone’s brain would make them “better”? No where in this book does anyone actually talk about what is “wrong.” Sure, the doctors ask once and Esther won’t reply, but it seems like they just give up and think “She’s crazy, so why waste my time trying to figure out the problem when we can just treat her and send her home.” Plath writes with a great deal of knowledge regarding life in an asylum and it has been suggested that Plath mirrored much of this book on her one life. She too was a struggling writer and received a scholarship to University. She too received an internship in New York. And, as we know now, she too suffered from severe depression and possible schizophrenia. She also underwent shock therapy. This is readily apparent based on her descriptions of how it feels. Only someone who underwent such torture could provide such insight into it. Based on Plath’s descriptions of Esther, I don’t believe she was schizophrenic. Deeply and severely depressed, yes, but schizophrenic no. This could be for one of two reasons – 1) Plath mirrored Esther after herself and this is exactly the kinds of thoughts she had (including a great deal of suicidal ideation) or 2) She decided that Esther was too close of a caricature of herself and decided to change things slightly.

Plath ends the story on a different note than I was expecting. I thought that Esther was finally going to have a successful suicide attempt and die. She seemed to be getting “better” near the end, but there was still something missing. To use her words, she was still “under the bell jar.” She could not escape. And the book ends with one main thought left in the reader’s mind – Even if Esther lives, she will have “nothing.” She will forever be attached to the “mental illness” stigma and it will define her. She will never be who she was and, I predict, that she would eventually spiral downward again and, inevitably, kill herself. The book ends with Esther going for an “interview” to determine if she is ready to leave the asylum and return to school. We never find out the result, but I think it’s better that way. I was not ready to see Esther die, but I don’t believe that she would have returned to school and her “normal” life. She would always be Esther and will never be anything else. She is tainted and broken, and in a way, unfixable.

I very much enjoyed this book, despite the dark content. Plath was a marvelous writer and I’m disappointed that she only completed one novel in her short lifetime. I’m not a huge poetry fan, but one that I found was beautiful and I thought I would publish it with my book review.

Mad Girl’s Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my lids and all is born again. (I think I made you up inside my head).

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, And arbitrary blackness gallops in: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. (I think I made you up inside my head).

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade; Exit seraphim and Satan’s men: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said, But I grow old and I forget your name. (I think I made you up inside my head).

I should have loved a thunderbird instead; At least when spring comes they roar back again. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head).

Sylvia Plath, 1954

Have you ever felt something was so beautiful that you wondered if it was real? Did you ever forget for just a second that you were married and wondered if your marriage and your current life and your love was real? Did you ever wonder if you made something up inside your head? Like it was all just a dream and one day you’ll wake up and it will all be gone and you wished you’d never thought it was a dream? Plath’s writing has so many complexities, but is also simple and I think that is what makes it beautiful. I could analyze this for years and still think something new each time I read it. I think one of Plath’s books of poetry may be in my future.

Long story short: 5 out of 5 stars. I wish I hadn’t waited this long to read it, but I’m glad that I had my degree before reading it. I felt that I understood it more.

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