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.
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.