The Bell Jar – A Book Review
The Bell Jar – A Book Review
‘The sickness rolled through me in great waves. After each wave it would fade away and leave me limp as a wet leaf and shivering all over and then I would feel it rise up in me again, and the glittering white torture chamber tiles under my feet and over my head and all four sides closed in a squeezed me to pieces.’
The Bell Jar is American writer and poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas it is a semi autobiography novel, often regarded as a roman a clef and details the decline into mental illness of the central protagonist Ester Greenwood. The Bell Jar draws stark parallels with Plath’s own experiences in dealing with what appears to be either clinical depression or bipolar disorder and is an enthralling read from both a literary and psychological standpoint.
At the time of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s execution in the early 1950’s Ester Greenwood is an intelligent and talented young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts who has gained a summer internship at a prominent New York magazine. Having been thrust into the hedonism of big city life she feels frightened and disorientated in her environment. She admires the piety of her friends though appears unable to connect with anyone on a deeper emotional level.
As the story infolds she describes numerous seriocomic events that occur during her internship. She describes her relationship with Buddy Willard a young man whom she considers worthy marriage material and her experiences with Doreen a carefree hedonistic girl who seems to epitomise the glamorous lifestyle accompanied with big city living.
Having been rejected to attend another writing course with a world famous author she returns to Boston with the intention of writing a novel. It is in this environment that her mental state deteriorates significantly. Ester discovers her entire identity is comprised of academic achievement. Without this sole focus in her life her world begins to crumble. She struggles to find a place and purpose and demonstrates symptoms of depression.
Upon following the narration the reader begins to suspect that something is very wrong. Ester is struggling with her mental state. Her writing is lucid though her thought processes are not. She begins to describe the different ways in which she could commit suicide, such as swimming as far out into the ocean as she possible could. In one passage she describes, ‘I had meant to cover my legs if anyone came in, but now I saw it was too late, so I let them stick out just as they were, disgusting and ugly. That’s me I thought, that’s what I am.
On her mother’s insistence she seeks therapy. She sees a psychiatrist whom diagnoses her with a mental illness and administers electroconvulsive therapy. This has a profound effect on Ester and leaves her traumatised. She sinks further into depression and describes a feeling of being trapped under a metaphorical bell jar unable to breathe. We follow Ester’s plight, her struggle to retain her sanity until the story reaches its conclusion.
The Bell Jar is set in the early 1950’s and was written before the feminist movement of the 1960’s. Ester’s frustration and unhappiness is made clear immediately. She feels stifled by a culture in which a women’s freedom is limited. She feels strained by the expectations those have around her and paradoxically shows condescension when asked by her mother to formulate a back up plan for her career. Her feelings of frustration are palpable and yet she knows she is talented. Ester is a complex character and simultaneously an extremely human one. She continually displays the strain of too much thought process and the hindrance this bestows upon the individual. She refuses to be labelled a ‘mental patient’ and feels consistently misunderstood.
The story is narrated entirely from Ester’s perspective. We become a voyeur intruding in her life and her own personal thoughts and emotions. All other characters are described in entirely the manner she perceives them and the audience are left to decide for themselves whether to agree with Ester’s perceptions or not.
Sylvia Plath has written a roman a clef, a novel based on her own experiences. Although the novel was written in the 1950’s it still has just as much relevance today. The central themes still exist in society today. American culture stresses high achievement and therefore places pressure on young people to strive for often, unrealistic expectations. There is an ever-present sexual tension between sexes in many social environments, especially with young adults that exists today. The relationships between family members are often complex and have their ups and downs. All of these issues resonate with the reader and ensures the relevance of Plath’s novel in today’s literary sense.
This is a sombre and melancholy novel though through Path’s wit and intelligence she manages to captivate the reader. Even when describing her most desperate and self destructive moments her sardonic humour and wry narration ensures the audiences attention is firmly fixated on the details of the story. We become completely engrossed and emotionally invested in the story through intelligent and edgy writing and this is a must for any bibliophiles collection.