Review of The Bell Jar
When I picked up The Bell Jar at the library, I wasn’t sure if I should be reading it. I wasn’t really in a good place, mentally, and I knew that the book had some dark themes. I also thought it was a book of poetry, and I’m not much of a poetry person. But I knew it was a book I should read at some point in my life, and I chose then. I’m very grateful I did.
Sylvia Plath’s novel is about nineteen year-old Esther Greenwood, who, at the start of the book, is in the middle of a magazine internship in New York City. She’s one of twelve female writers who were invited to not only work on an NYC magazine, but also to be lavished with attention and gifts. It should be a dream come true for a well brought-up aspiring writer like Esther, but something’s wrong. She feels constantly outside of what she’s doing and the people around her, and she can’t seem to get excited about anything like all the other girls. “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” she says early in the book. But life has no regard for her- besides having trouble mentally, she gets rejected by boys she wants to date and schools she wants to get into. She gets assaulted at a party and has to keep it to herself. Her mother has little regard for her and her father has been out of the picture for a long time. When Esther returns home the summer after her internship, a summer she had planned to spend in a prestigious writing program (from which she was rejected), her symptoms worsen. Eventually, she takes herself to get electroshock treatments, and it’s a terrible experience. Her world just gets darker, until finally she is admitted into psych ward. Then, the only question is, will the ward make her better, or will she be stuck there forever?
As previously mentioned, I knew well the themes in The Bell Jar and people’s reactions to them: that the book was incredibly dark and if you weren’t already depressed, this book would make it happen. I also went into the reading with my personal expectations- that it would be written in an older voice, about an older, married woman and that I probably wouldn’t be able to relate at all. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is classified as young adult, written in a young voice and extremely relatable. Perhaps because I am going through my own depression, I didn’t find Esther’s story to be gloomy, but refreshing. At last, someone who was writing accurately about what I’m going through. There were certainly parts that were disturbing or sad, but I didn’t feel myself pulled down by the story.
Perhaps because The Bell Jar is a thinly veiled tale of Plath’s own life, the reactions of Esther’s mother were heartbreaking, but quiet accurate to how many people reaction to all mental illnesses. After her first needlessly painful round of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy), Esther sits in the back of her mother’s car and says that she’s done with the treatments. Her mother smiles. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that,” she says. Esther is surprised. “Like what?” she asks. Her mother explains, “Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at the hospital. I knew you’d be all right again.” Even after Esther nearly succeeds in killing herself, during her recovery her mother tells her, “We’ll act as if this were all a bad dream,” as though Esther could simply forget the reasons why she wanted to kill herself and enter a new, happy life.
But not everyone in Esther’s life treat her depression with scorn. An old flame of hers, Buddy, who later dated an acquaintance of Esther’s who also ends up, suicidal, in the psych ward, asks Esther if it could possibly have been him who drove the girls insane. He worries that something he did during their respective courtships somehow pushed the girls over the edge.
One thing that jumped out at me about Plath’s writing style besides, of course, how good it is, is that she LOVES similes. Especially in the beginning of the novel, there’s a least one per page, sometimes more. She describes what she wears as “expensive clothes hanging limp as fish,” and later on writes, “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”
If anything, I find The Bell Jar a good source about mental illness. For people suffering from similar maladies, the book tells them that they’re not alone. For those who aren’t afflicted, it gives them insight into the condition and how involuntary it is. The Bell Jar is a fantastic novel. Read it.
It didn’t seem to be summer anymore. I could feel the winter shaking my bones and banging my teeth together.
A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.
My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.
The only trouble was, church, even the Catholic Church, didn’t take up the whole of your life. No matter how much you knelt and prayed, you still had to eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.
Sunday- the doctor’s paradise! Doctors at country clubs, doctors at the seaside, doctors with mistresses, doctors with wives, doctors in church, doctors in yachts, doctors everywhere resolutely being people instead of doctors.
A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.
“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if this were all a bad dream.”
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.
A bad dream.
I remembered everything.
There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice- patched, retreaded and approved for the road.