The Bell Jar
Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Page Count: 234
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Original Publication Date: 1963
Genre(s): Classics, Fiction
We see Esther Greenwood’s life forward and backward through a series of events that lead to suicide attempts and asylum stays. She’s a smart, young woman studying English at an all-women’s university, where she receives scholarship and honors. She lands a summer job in New York working for a women’s magazine, which begins her descent into depression. As Esther floats from hospital to hospital, we don’t know how the novel is going to end until it does.
I studied Sylvia Plath in college like every other English major, but never delved too far into her personal life. We pretty much just studied her poetry and a bit of her marriage to Ted Hughes — AKA a POS person, even if he is one of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945,” according to Times. Bleh. So I did my own research in the midst of reading The Bell Jar and this just broke my heart even more. Apparently, The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel and is considered to be semi-autobiographical, which, after researching her personal life, I can attest to that.
Plath tried to take her life many times, visited many hospitals, received shock therapy on multiple occasions, and was unfortunately married to Hughes, with whom she had 2 children. It’s been said that Hughes physically abused Plath, perhaps causing her to miscarriage once. Hughes was also cheating on Plath with his mistress, Assia Wevill, so Plath and Hughes eventually seperated. Plath’s depression only worsened, causing her to kill herself at age 30 by sealing off the kitchen, turning on the gas oven, and sticking her head inside.
Hughes was supposedly super upset by this, but c’mon, really? I don’t know. I have so much disdain for the guy. Well, he continued seeing Wevill, but wouldn’t marry her and actually started cheating on her, too. So what did Wevill do? Well, it’s pretty disturbing. She sealed off her kitchen, gave her 4-year-old daughter sleeping pills, turned on the gas oven, and died with her daughter. Sound familiar? Yeah. Wow. Oh, and let me not forget to mention that one of Plath and Hughes’s children, their son Nicholas Hughes, killed himself back in 2009 by hanging, after a long battle with depression. Their daughter is still alive, but unmarried and has no children. What a family. What a sad, sad story.
Plath wrote The Bell Jar inspired by her own life and experiences, and you can tell while reading it. It starts off with Esther in New York for the magazine job, follows her back home to her mother’s house, and ends with her in a mental asylum. The story is told in first-person from Esther’s POV and jumps back-and-forth through a bit of non-linear storytelling. It’s mostly inner monologue, which I usually don’t like as much because I’m a big fan of engaging dialogue, but Plath is the exception, apparently. Her storytelling kept me hooked and intrigued page after page, whether there was little or a lot of dialogue.
Being 21 and just graduated from college, I think this was the perfect time for me to read this novel. I related to Plath right off the bat:
I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America … Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself … I felt very still and very empty.
That’s literally on page 2. Talk about a reality check. That’s how I feel, sitting around applying to jobs and getting rejection email after rejection email. I felt very connected to Esther’s character and related to her a lot. I marked this book up quite a bit.
I was also astounded at how much of a feminist Plath was. I mean, I’ve read her poetry, but it really hit home in her novel. She goes on rants about men that are still true even today. Plath was brilliant, and it reflects in her writing.
It was hard for me to see the characters as characters rather than real people. I read Esther as Plath the entire time, and all the other characters as people in her life. It was hard to dissociate myself from the autobiographical elements. Nevertheless, Esther is a fantastic narrator and takes you on a long, heartbreaking journey in only 200 pages.
I’ve always adored Plath’s poetry, but I never thought I’d fall in love with her prose as much as I have. I hate to say it, but I don’t know if we’ll ever see such talent in literature in the 21st century as we saw in the past. I truly love the way Plath writes: the way she describes things, the way she constructs her story, the way she molds her characters and leads us through their arcs. This is the kind of novel you want to read over and over again, at different stages in your life. It’ll definitely sit on my shelf until I die. This is easily one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.
–“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.”
–“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.
-“I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath.”
-“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
-“If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”
-“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”