The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – Book Review

Title: The Bell Jar

Author: Sylvia Plath

Genre: Modern Classic

Trigger Warning

  • Depression
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Graphic descriptions of suicide attempts

Blurb from Goodreads

Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity

Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time.

In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies.

A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.

My Review

“I guess I should have reacted the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

I did not enjoy reading ‘The Bell Jar’ but that does not mean to say that it is not a wonderful book. It is! It absolutely is… I just found it quite harrowing and emotionally draining.

It is the story of Esther Greenwood and to a lesser extent the story of Sylvia Plath herself. It tells of a woman’s descent into depression… 

Esther’s world was stifling. It was utterly stifling. And so painful that I selfishly almost wish I had never read about. This book just affected me so deeply.

“People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn’t see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing a poem people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick or couldn’t sleep.” 

This book explored the separation between mind and body of someone who is suffering from depression. How the lead character Esther no longer saw herself as a person, how she didn’t recognise herself anymore, how she no longer had drive or focus. She had all these thoughts about what she would do / could do… what she should say in situations, what answers she should give… but then she never did anything, never said anything, she shut down… her feelings of inadequacy… they were overwhelming… oppressive… repressive. 

However the most difficult aspect of the book for me was reading about her suicidal ideations and her attempts. I found it so hard, and at times incredibly frightening, to read about the longing to end a life. 

And I suppose knowing how Sylvia Plath in the end took her own life just makes this book all the more harrowing… 

But it was the way she talked about suicide. As if her mind and body were these two separate entities and the only way to calm her mind was to kill her body but then her body in turn tricked her into staying alive….there was one passage about attempting to hang herself and how in the end her body forced her into staying alive… And another similar passage talking about her wrists…

It was so hard reading these things. I wanted to cry out, I felt sick but mostly I felt so helpless reading this book.

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.” 

What this book also did was talk about the social expectations that are placed on women. Esther wanted to be in charge of her own life, not serving any man, not following any antiquated idea of what a woman should be, how a woman should act. She had her own values and wanted to be a different kind of woman than the societal norm. 

The book introduces us to supporting characters that broke the mould of what it meant to be a woman in 1950s America, who showed Esther that she could be more. There was the female psychiatrist and the magazine editor…two women in highly respected jobs and positions of power. There was the friend Doreen who was sexually liberated which would have been very taboo at the time.

This book was ground-breaking in its day… you have to applaud the feminist ideals of Plath. She was an amazing woman.

“And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard’s kitchen mat.” 

I had some difficulties with the writing style of this book and with the pastiche-type supporting characters which makes this a less than perfect read for me.

It is however a book that I think should be read.

But in saying that, this isn’t a book you should read lightly.

You need to be aware of what you are getting into. It is not an easy read but it is a fulfilling read. It sheds light on the darkest of subject matter but it also darkens the light. I feel there are shadows in my soul after this book. I feel helpless. I keep thinking of the sad end to Sylvia Plath’s own life and how I wish we could do more as a society to help all those brilliant minds that we have lost to this cruel illness.

I guess I am unable to separate this book and its story from that of Sylvia Plath’s own life-story and that explains my abiding sense of loss. 

The book itself does however offer hope for the future… 
We should always hope for the future… 
Without hope… Perish the thought. 

“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.”

My Socials 

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