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.
I suppose it’s safe to say that The Bell Jar was nothing that I truly expected. I don’t know how I got through college without reading Plath, but when my friend H pulled it out of her car, handed it to me, and said it changed her life, I knew I had to read it.
Esther, at first, is the typical small town girl living the dream life in New York City. I could identify with her, how she felt out of place but wasn’t sure if she quite wanted to fit in. Esther is the girl who thinks too much, analyzes past actions (a good half of the book’s narrative focuses on her past), and has trouble connecting with the future. Many of her friends and acquaintances float in the narrative and right back out again: very few are in it for the long haul. I found this detail a strong example of how Esther viewed herself: she was trying on different people, different personalities, to see which fit.
The themes of identity that Esther faces in The Bell Jar are a barrier many women still face today: family or career? While I feel that barrier is slowly breaking, it’s still a factor in many women’s lives. Esther faces women on both sides of the barrier, but strangely interacts with more career women than men. All of her doctors but one are a man. The nurses are overwhelmingly female, except for the men who bring their food in the asylum. Her mother, while not portrayed as the best role model, gets up every day and goes to work. Men, on the other hand, are portrayed as a) domineering and ignorant, like her first psychiatrist, b) a pushover like Buddy Willard, or c) feminine and mild, like Buddy’s father. Esther does have a brother, but his role is so minor that I don’t think Plath even gives him a name. There’s no strong, respectable male role model in The Bell Jar. This reading makes me think about the biographical aspects of her writing: was Plath herself debating on this same topic as she wrote?
Normally, this type of narration takes me a while to adjust to, but Esther’s story and mindset were so captivating, I fell right into her world. I loved the flashbacks and brief glimpses into the past: they built out her character and perspective in the best way possible. The open-ended references make me yearn to read other critiques or even Plath’s own thoughts on the novel. The most potent references were to the bell jar itself. Some think it’s a reference to her own depression, but I wonder if it’s a metaphor for the world Esther saw herself in. She could see all of these glorious experiences from inside her bell jar, but could never truly feel or try them for herself…
I just finished this book; normally when I sit down to write a review, I’ve mulled on the story a bit, wrote some notes, maybe a little research, but not this time. The Bell Jar grips your emotions, subtly at first but with more force as Esther’s story unfolds. There’s so much in her that I see in my friends, in my coworkers, in myself: the struggle to find the right path, to decide what’s best for you, and to fight against the flow of society.
H said the book changed her life. It certainly changed mine.