Goodreads Synopsis: Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.
Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
In high school, I’d read a Sylvia Plath poem and remember my english teacher telling us how the poet had stuck her head in an oven and killed herself. Then, in college we discussed her many attempts at committing suicide, digressing grossly from the poem we were meant to read. Plath is well known for her tragic suicide and so the first thing that comes to mind when I hear her name is just that.
Having read about her life, I was aware that The Bell Jar would not be an easy read but yet, that still didn’t prepare me for this raw, uncompromising narrative of Esther Greenwood’s very real battle with depression. Esther’s outlook is cynical, but realistic in its questioning of everyday existence and trivialities what with the need to go through the motions when in the end we all perish anyway. The symbolism used is not excessive nor is the writing flowery like you’d expect of a poet, demonstrated in the fig tree symbol:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. 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.”
The writing isn’t emotional or steeped in self pity and wallowing which is how depression is inaccurately portrayed. The novel has more to do with Esther’s thoughts and perceptions which contribute to the feeling of detachment from the self and other. I also appreciate how the protagonist’s depression isn’t justified by traumatic events and explained in that manner. Sometimes people can suffer from depression despite having a decent or wonderful life, just as Esther is living every girl’s dream working at a fashion magazine in New York yet is still unhappy. There isn’t a clear line distinguishing Esther pre and post-breakdown which paints her situation realistically.
What makes Esther’s descent into insanity all the more real is that Plath has suffered the same albeit with the insight to write about it well. When reading the book it’s evident that Esther is Plath’s fictional counterpart, which is why The Bell Jar has been described as semi-autobiographical. If you know about Plath’s life, you can easily draw the parallels between the author and character, an eerily intense merging of fiction and reality. This is as confessional as confessional writing can get. At times, I felt so uncomfortably aware that it was as if I was in Sylvia Plath’s own mind, experiencing what she went through. When Esther sits down to write a novel in the summer saying, “My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.” I can’t help but wonder if this is what Plath had thought when she began writing the novel herself. (There are six letter in Sylvia too.)
I think it’s also particularly evident in the way Esther’s attempt at committing suicide by taking a large number of sleeping pills and lying under her mother’s house was written. The detached insight with which she writes in can only have come from experience. At times, it’s unsettling how calmly these suicide attempts are described and the fact that they stem from Plath’s own attempts intensifies that discomfort.
The novel also provides a look into how mental illness was perceived and treated in the 50’s and 60’s. The apt title says it all. Bell jars are used in physics to create vacuums and Plath likens this to the feeling of confinement, making the bell jar a symbolic representation of depression. This changed my perspective of mental illness and the timing couldn’t have been better now that I’m interning at a neuropsychiatric hospital. I’ve seen two ECT rounds and was told it wasn’t as terrible as the media makes it out to be now that they administer muscle relaxants and anaesthesia prior to the shocks. But when I’d gotten to the part of the novel where Esther is given her first electric shock therapy, I realised how far psychiatry has come. The novel portrays electric shock therapy, which was in its prime along with lobotomies at the time, in a torturous manner, saying, “…with each flash, a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.”
Reading this book is a harrowing, emotionally intense experience. While it ends on a hopeful note for Esther with the lifting of the bell jar and a crack of fresh air, the author’s own fate hangs like an ominous epilogue to the book, completed in reality where fiction left off. It’s a difficult read, depressing and thought-provoking all at once. I would be lying if I said the book won’t haunt you once you set it down but…some stories are worth being haunted by. The Bell Jar is one of them.