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Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood. The novel looks into Esther’s life both before and after she experiences symptoms of mental illness. I found this to both an interesting character study as well as what can only be described as a realistic account of a person descending into mental illness. This is a short novel. My edition was only 189 pages long. This was first published in 1963 shortly before Plath’s death. For those who do not know, the tragic connection is that Plath committed suicide shortly after the book was published. Like Plath herself, the novel’s main character suffers from depression and makes several suicide attempts. 

The book is told from Esther’s first - person point of view. This is a semi - autobiographical if not a straight up thinly veiled autobiography. Esther is a young, intelligent and vivacious college student. The book opens with her spending time as an intern for Ladies' Day magazine. Early on, the narrative covers Esther’s social life, dating life and work life. Many of her experiences are comical. Esther wants to be a poet when she is not dreaming of other life paths. Esther is perceptive, witty and sharp and as she doles out personal and social commentary freely. Later on, she starts to descend into mental illness and depression and she undergoes therapy, including shock treatments. The “Bell Jar” refers to the confining and stifling place that Esther feels like she is trapped in due to her depression. 

Even during her mental decline, Esther is perceptive and poetical,

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

I think that the above is very lyrical.  The shadows are indicative of Esther’s melancholy tinged view of the world. Here they affect everything in a way that depression does for those afflicted.

In a way this seems like two stories. Before Esther begins to experience symptoms of mental illness the narrative is a bit cynical but upbeat. The entire mood and tone of the book changes with Esther’s condition. It turns darker. 

Esther has a cynical streak in her. She is also determined to retain a sense of independence and resists getting pulled in to marriage that will be limiting to her life. The world that is presented in the book gives Esther some fairly narrow choices as to who she is expected to marry. I understand her hesitancy. There is a sophomoric streak to Esther too. However, I think that this was realistic for a young person who is both intelligent and cynical. Her observations about the world are not exactly profound, but they are intellectually lively and often amusing. 

Here she is commenting upon, what at the time was new film technology,

I hate Technicolor. Everybody in a Technicolor movie seems to feel obliged to wear a lurid costume in each new scene and to stand around like a clotheshorse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction.

Later in the book Esther makes several attempts at suicide, gets institutionalized in a high - class facility and undergoes shock treatment. As Plath was writing from experience here, this part of the book seems very credible. As for Esther’s mental illness there are actually folks online today who try to do psychoanalysis. However, though this may not have been recognized at the time, the kind of issues that Esther has are clearly chemical in terms of brain function and the best treatment, though imperfect, now includes medication for most people. 

The Bell Jar is very famous. Based upon word of mouth and what I read on the internet, I am going to make few generalizations about its popularity. I lot of young people read it and say they like it because they relate to it. It seems more popular with women than men, but a fair number of men love the book too. Of course, not everyone likes the book. Based upon reviews on Amazon and Goodreads it seems that people who do not like the book strongly dislike it. This is the first time that I have read it. 

I thought that this is very much worth the read. We get a peek into a young woman’s mind and opinions that are interesting, lively and funny. The descent into mental illness is worth it if only for the realistic observations. Plath’s tragic death adds poignancy to it all. Though the book might not quite live up to its near cult - like status, it is a worthy character study. Tragically, do to the author's  real life experiences, the later parts of the book gain extra credence. I cannot help to wonder what other works Plath would have created had she lived.

51 comments:

Jillian said...

Hi Brian! I recommend the poetry collection Ariel if you'd like some more Sylvia Plath. For me it is far more magnificent than this work, which I have read & respect. But oh my, her poetry. x

mudpuddle said...

i don't know very much about SP; i guess my inclinations lean away from depression and angst... but i think it's courageous of you to read and post about it; there's probably lots of readers who would take the book up as a result of reading this instructive post...

Sandi said...

I have yet to read the book, but this turn of phrase leapt out at me, "... institutionalized in a high - class facility."

It raises questions. Of course, the obvious being why there is a discrepancy in health care, but also-- why is there a high-class facility for this type of illness? It seems all the money in the world can buy healthcare, but not a clear mind. She is a woman of means, educated, with her main concern being marrying or not. Well, I am sure there are more concerns than that, but sometimes an easy life is more difficult in important ways.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Your very fine review makes me want to read The Bell Jar again because I don't think I was ready for this book the first time I read it. I didn't go in with the right perspective which is that for Sylvia Plath depression was the major challenge of her life. It sounds like she tried to share that with us in The Bell Jar but there have been so many myths built up around Plath that the real woman has gotten lost over the years and for Plath severe depression was the major struggle of her life.

Judy Krueger said...

She wrote two books of poetry, one published during her life and a second, Ariel, published after her death. My review of Ariel is here: https://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2019/02/ariel.html
She wrote stories and kept journals, many of which have been collected and published. You can find all that on Goodreads.
I also read a wonderful fictional biography called Wintering which covers her relationship with her husband, Ted Hughes, also a poet. https://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2019/03/wintering.html
So she created quite a bit before she succumbed to her illness.

Dorothy Borders said...

I read this book for the first time three years ago and found it quite thought-provoking. (Here's my review link: https://birdwoman-thenatureofthings.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-bell-jar-by-sylvia-plath-review.html) Your point about what Plath might have written had she been able to overcome her illness is well-taken. Such a tragedy that she was not able to find her path out of the darkness.

The Padre said...

Brother Brian, This is a new one on me. The shortened 189 pages sparked my interest as well. I have a feeling that this particular story reads quickly. Tends to happen when reading of a vivacious character. Clicked on the above reviews as I was curious about the poems. Very Interesting. Anyway, thanx for the review and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Cheers

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. It is interesting that despite the heavy descriptions of depression here, a fair amount of the book is upbeat.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sandi - It is true, sometimes those who are fortunate with money are not fortunate in other ways.

The character of Esther, and apparently Platth herself, were on the precipice of money. Her family is not well to do. But because if her writing talent and where she lives, many people that she associates with are wealthy. That includes her fiancé as well as the writer who pays her hospital bills.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jillian - I really have to read Plath’s poetry. I need to read more poetry in general.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy- There were many books that I read when young that I lost out on because of youth. Depression become the overriding factor in both Esther’s and Plath’s life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - Thanks for the list. I need to delve into her other works.

Brian Joseph said...

I will also check our out your review shortly.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy - I will check out your review. Terrible that she could not overcome her illness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Padre - This was quick reading. I must give her poetry a try.

Marian H said...

I really like those quotes. I've been wanting to read this, but I'm nervous it might be too difficult in terms of subject matter. Would it be a book I could read in small increments, or do you think it's best read straight through?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marion - The book is fairly short and goes fast. But You could take it in small bits. I do find some books disturbing but I did not find this one to be.

JacquiWine said...

A very interesting set of reflections, Brian. I read this book many years ago, at a time when it probably cut too close to the bone for personal reasons, but I do think it captures something that will will resonate with many readers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - It seems common for folks to find things in this book relatable. .

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I read this a gazillion years ago when I was young. At the time, Sylvia Plath was lauded as a tragic proto-feminist victim and her husband Ted Hughes was demonized as an abusive patriarchal monster. That simplistic view is long overdue for reinterpretation, which I believe has finally started. Both of them were unfortunate, damaged souls of their oppressive times.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - Esther definitely tried to asserting herself against social norms. I do not know how much that this was reflected in Plath’s personality. I know very little about Hughes other then that he and Plath were separated at the time of her death.

Lark said...

It's been a long time since I read this book. I first read it in my 20s, probably like most girls do. And while I didn't dislike it, I think I was underwhelmed by it. I should probably reread it again now and see if my opinion of it has changed. Plath's diaries get really dark and depressing, too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lark - I could see being underwhelmed by this. With that, I also think that there is a lot that is worthwhile here.

thecuecard said...

I think I read the Bell Jar in high school ... long ago. I think I did find it relatable, interesting, and a good book then. I found Esther smart & cynical as you say. Who knows what I would think of the book now. I'm glad you read it. The options for women in her day .... were likely very much like a Bell Jar ... so I still sympathize with her in various ways.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - It seems that relatable is a word often used in relation to this book.

I think that some women found fulfilling lives and relationships, but it seems that it was tricky to do so.

Stefanie said...

I read this in college so it's been a very long time. But I still recall a heavy, trapped, claustrophobic feeling and the appalling, brutal shock treatments. As a novel, it is not exactly brilliant, but it does have much to say about the culture of the time and they way women with mental health issues were treated.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie- So many folks read this when young. Though there are still issues, the expectations imposed on women and the treatment of mental issues have changed a lot.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I read this book many years ago (when "everybody did"), and think it would be worth reading again. (I have a copy somewhere.) Thank you for sharing your intelligent insights. It was pretty ground-breaking when it was published, and it still seems like a classic. I think it would be interesting to hear this as an audiobook.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - A lot of people read this when young. I agree. I would love to read this in audiobook.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian, thanks for the review. Mental illness is tragic, but also fascinating. I've never read this book, but I've read about Sylvia Plath. It's interesting to me what motivates someone to end their life. I had a friend who underwent shock treatments. Hopefully they don't do that anymore.

Whispering Gums said...

I read this a few decades ago now, so don't remember any details at all, except that I found it very moving, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. I'd be interested to read it again. It is the sort of book that people probably either love or hate.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Suicide is such an enigma. I tend that it is different when there is a serious underlying chemical based issue.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - Judging by the online commentary, there is a lot of love or hate.

So many folks read this when young.

James said...

This is one of those books that I have heard a lot about but have never gotten around to reading. Thanks to your fine review I will add it to my tbr pile and may read it one day.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - It is so famous.

If you read it I would be curious as to what you think it.

the bookworm said...

Hi Brian, I have The Bell Jar on my shelves for many years still unread. I enjoy Anne Sexton's poetry and I remember reading somewhere the two were good friends.
Great post as usual, one day I need to pick my copy up.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Everyone seems to have this book around it has read it.

If you give this a try I would be curious as to what you think.

Carol said...

Interesting review, Brian. I was surprised to read the shock therapy (ECT) is still used today, probably not as much as it used to be but also more finely tuned than previously. Still, chemical treatment has its own issues. I haven’t read anything by Platt.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - As I understand it, shock treatment is used for folks who do not respond well to medication. Without a doubt all treatments have drawbacks. But there are so many people who now are living normal lives who would have not had any kind of normal life in the past.

The Liberty Belle said...

Such good observations and commentary. I'm glad to know that the book highlights that mental illness and cognitive deficits are not synonomous. You stated that Esther demonstrates intelligence. I wasn't surprised by that. Your review also shines the light on the history of mental health treatment. Today, we are appalled by the thought of shock therapy and institutionalization. At the time, clinicians believed in its potential to enhance mental stability. Today, we place faith in med-management and theoretical orientations, such as Cognitive Behavioral, that future generations might deem as upardonable. So thankful for your review and hope to read it during the Autumn season.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Belle - Without a doubt, intelligent people do run into mental health issues. While our current therapies do have there shortcomings, it is demonstrable that they have made many lives so much better.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I see she wrote most of the poems which made her famous not all that long before her death. Sad! Depression is a horrible thing to have.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Indeed. She seems to have created such great work right before her Death. Depression can be a terrible thing.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Great thoughts on this book as always Brian. For myself an author/books I have always shied away from as having a mother who has had a life long battle with depression I think they might be a bit too close to be comfortable.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Felicity. A lot of folks have commented that they have not read books like this because of their personal experiences.

Susan Kane said...

Sylvia Plath was a tragic soul. this book was part of sophomore college psych class, and I gobbled it up. Intense insight and soul revelations were unlike anything I had ever read.

Good choice to share with us.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan. Tragic indeed.

JaneGS said...

This is one of the saddest books I've ever read. Like you, I thought it lyrical and insightful. I simply cannot see it as other than autobiographical and that underscores the loss the book represents, not only Plath losing her life to mental illness and the pain that caused her family, but also the loss to the literary world. Who knows what masterpieces of literature we might have had had Plath been able to survive.

Excellent review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane - It is terribly sad and tragic. Ironically, I thought that the book ended on a slightly positive note, but the reality did not.

baili said...

i would say THANK YOU for sharing this book with us dear Brain

i think it was highly brave of her to share her personal painful experience in such witty and light way ,this is gut not everybody has indeed. she sounds one of those who dare to stand on the peak of the hill (depth of the understanding of life) and determine to live without being whiny or pitiful which is admirable indeed

i loved your selection of paragraph from her book , mental illness seems to sharpen her senses and deepen her insight .

i will read this book for sure no doubt about it :)
thank once again for another wonderful pick .
many more blessings to you and your's!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili- You raise a good point. It must be really difficult to share the details with the world. Plath has done so in a way that opens her experience to the world for all time to come.

Those are great quotations.