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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar tells the story of the mental breakdown of college girl Esther Greenwood in 1950s America, portraying events and experiences strikingly similar to those in Sylvia Plath’s own life between June 1953 and February 1954. I’m not sure whether it is best to read this novel without knowing that Sylvia Plath went through the nervous breakdown herself or reading it with the knowledge that this is semi-autobiographical? All the same, the book serves as an insight to dishevel state of mind of a young woman finding her ways through disappointment and love.

The novel begins with Esther’s short trip to New York City after she’s won a scholarship to intern at a fashion magazine.  Together with her crazy friends, Doreen and Betsy, she narrates adventures (and misadventures) of them in the city and also a very funny flashback of Esther’s days in school when she was asked how ambitious she wants to be by her editor and recalls her past relationships. However, when Esther returns to her small town and subsequently receives a rejection for her scholarship application, her life begins to spiral out of control. It was quite sudden and the story didn’t mark the event as a breaking point of her life but I think that was when Esther broke down at about page 121 about half of the book.

I felt uncomfortable and disorientating at the later part of the book, yet I also feel sad reading about the unnecessary shock therapy that the character has to go through and Esther being treated like a specimen by doctors and student doctors and mocked by wicked nurses. I suppose back then in the late 60’s the study of psychotherapy and its methods are not advanced and understood as it is today, on top of the stigma of the illness, makes it very difficult for the patient to get well. Esther also describes her past as while she is away in “that place”.

Some of my favourite passages:

And then I wondered if as soon as he came to like me he would sink into ordinariness, and if as soon as he came to love I would find fault after fault, the way i did with Buddy Willard and the boys before him. The same thing happened over and over:

I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all. – page 79

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.

Well, you were right. I am neurotic. I could never settle down in either the country or the city. If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days. – page 90

But when it came right down to slashing my wrist, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn’t do it. It was if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thing blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else deeper, more secret , and a whole lot harder to get at. – page 142 

If Esther was Slyvia’s voice, I think she is unconventional and honest. The cause of her mental health issue plays at the back of my mind, is it the death of her father? disappointment of the rejection of scholarship? perhaps even torn between being unconventional and subject to the stereotype of the woman of 50’s? (as her mother’s constant advice of imploring Sylvia to learn shorthand, so one could make a living as a woman and the pressure of finding a nice boy and settling down allude).

I had a discussion with a co-worker who has a daughter with chronic depression and she said we can all be depressed due to our circumstances but a long-term depression is mainly due to the brain’s chemical imbalance, the biological or genetic make-up of the person which is the cause of the problem. Such cases requires treatment. I wonder if Sylvia was born in present time, would it have been different for her?

Alexandra, my friend at work has kindly loan me the book. It is both a classic and iconic. I was surprise to find the tone of the book not that depressing as I expected, but quite entertaining at the beginning of the book. To say I enjoy the book sounds odd and politically incorrect but the book certainly makes a unique reading experience.


I would be sitting under the same glass bell har, stewing in my own sour air. – page 178

Paperback. Publisher: Faber and Faber 2006, 1963; Length: 234 pages; Setting: New York in the 50’s. Source: Alexandra. Finished reading at: 4 December 2011.

Other view:

Read Vishy’s review and the controversy surrounding the rights to her work after Plath’s death.

Vishy’s book blog:  I liked Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, though the second part of the book was a bit bleak and depressing. I liked Plath’s voice and her descriptions and the images her prose evokes throughout the book.

About the writer:

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge before receiving acclaim as a professional poet and writer. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and they lived together first in the United States and then England, having two children together: Frieda and Nicholas. Following a long struggle with depression and a marital separation, Plath committed suicide in 1963. Controversy continues to surround the events of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy.

Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for her two published collections: The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In 1982, she became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously, for The Collected Poems. She also wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death.

Watch the movie trailer of Sylvia in Youtube, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as Ted.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


18 thoughts on “The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. I agree with what your co-worker said. Clinical depression is indeed a chemical imbalance.

    I read this book with my book club years ago and no one liked it. It’s not really a book you like, but they have a hard time dealing with anything that is not “happy happy” so even though it was a great discussion book, they shut it down before really giving it a chance.

    Posted by Ti | December 13, 2011, 11:34 pm
    • Ti,
      I don’t get the happy happy crowd and most thought provoking books are not necessarily happy. I think that is one of the main reason I have my apprehension about joining a book club. I’m sad to hear that it is chemical because that would mean some people are more susceptible to depression than others and do need help and support to overcome it.

      Posted by JoV | December 17, 2011, 11:54 pm
  2. Nice review, Jo! Thanks for the link 🙂 I loved ‘The Bell Jar’ when I read it. Like you I felt that the book was not all doom and gloom, but the first part was actually quite sunny and nice. I loved Plath’s prose and the way she beautifully describes the small, delightful things.

    On the clinical depression front, I am on the fence still. I studied psychology at the university for a year and the only thing which I learnt during that time was that experts still don’t know most things about the human brain. The textbook and the professors kept on saying that this might be how things work or that might be how things work, never being confident or positive about most things. Many times they said that opposite claims, on the way the human brain worked, might be true and it depended on the situation. The simple workable explanation to me seems to be that clinical depression does seem to be caused because of chemistry, but this is probably triggered by a prolonged period of depressing thoughts which might arise because of the situation the person is in.

    Posted by Vishy | December 14, 2011, 4:10 am
    • Vishy,
      Thanks for sharing your views Vishy. Always a delight.
      I totally agree that prolonged depression do alter the body chemical and make a person more susceptible to depression. We do inherit chemicals from our parents and depression may run in the family. I do take expert’s claim with a pinch of salt!

      Posted by JoV | December 17, 2011, 11:57 pm
  3. I skimmed your review because this is on my shelf and I intend to get to it sometime soon. Glad to see you rated it highly though!

    Posted by Amy Reads | December 14, 2011, 8:01 pm
  4. I really hope to read The Bell Jar in 2012!

    Posted by Mel u | December 14, 2011, 11:10 pm
  5. Hmm. I’ve always been a bit dubious about ‘The Bell Jar’. I’m not one to be scared off by gender issues usually, but this is one that is overwhelmingly endorsed by female readers, and I’ve never been really attracted by the premise. Mind you, I was a bit hesitant about Woolf at first, and I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read of hers…

    Posted by Tony | December 15, 2011, 6:55 am
    • Tony,
      Esther (the character in the book) talks about her relationship and her new life in NYC. It is a young lady’s journal which chronicled her life event leading to her breakdown. In that sense it appeals to female readers a lot more. Sometimes I do step out of my comfort zone and read books I wouldn’t ever read and it mostly turns out to be a pleasant surprise!

      Posted by JoV | December 18, 2011, 12:11 am
  6. I read this book this year too, and found it both a distressing and rewarding read, out of all the books I read for the MIA reading challenge this is the one I think I learnt the most from.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | December 17, 2011, 4:07 pm
  7. Marvellous review, Jo! I have always wanted to read this book, but shied away from it, thinking it would further dampen my already susceptible-to-sad-and-tumultous-and-generally-meaningless-thoughts. But I am surprised to hear that you say there is a warmth to the beginning of the book. Depression, then, I think only grows with aging?

    Posted by Soul Muser | December 18, 2011, 8:50 am
  8. This is a book I have seen around for ages. It seems also a classic that must be read. Definitely in the new year.

    Posted by Mystica | December 21, 2011, 3:18 am
  9. Great review, Jo, this is such a classic. I love this book for its representation of mental illness in women and how 20th c psychiatry dealt with Ester’s case.

    Posted by Bina | December 25, 2011, 5:38 pm
    • Bina,
      20th C treatment not very considerate though. I’m reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates now. Set in 1955, one of the character is also mental and subject to shock treatment. It is aimed to shock the patient into forgetting whatever traumatic experience they may experience, in this character’s case it was his mathematical skills! LOL 🙂

      Posted by JoV | December 27, 2011, 8:29 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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