Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Ok, so I still haven’t posted my review of To Say Nothing of the Dog as voted on by Dumblebee users…I got distracted. I promise it’s coming!

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Sometimes, a death completely changes art.

Sylvia Plath’s suicide at the young age of thirty-one brought attention to her writing and made her a literary superstar.  Clearly fame comes at a high price; Plath had suffered from mental illness for much of her life and had an especially hard time preceding her death. 

Plath clearly portrays those struggles in the fictional novel The Bell Jar, the story of a young woman named Esther Greenwood who gets a summer internship at a New York City magazine. Instead of enjoying the glamorous parties and exciting opportunities, Esther feels disorientation and emptiness. She soon delves into a depression that she describes as being inside a bell jar, disconnected and confused about her place in the world, unable to see things clearly. This condition is not helped by the misunderstanding of her mother and the taboo of mental illnesses at the time (Bell Jar was published in 1963 when the subject matter was considered edgy and daring). 

Plath inserted many biographical elements into the novel, many characters being thinly veiled representations of people in her life and the magazine internship a genuine happening that disappointed Plath greatly, setting off a descent into depression. The novel was published under the pen name Victoria Lucas before her death so as to prevent the truth from coming out. 

Esther Greenwood represents what many twenty-somethings feel today: in an uncertain economy where jobs are not guaranteed, a feeling of confusion, dissonance and rejection is not uncommon. In fact, I felt a lot of connection with Esther, not necessarily in her depression but in her feelings of uncertainty and indecision. She’s trying to find her place in the world and only finding frustration along the way.

The Bell Jar has been described as the female Catcher in the Rye; both novels deconstruct societal values. Holden Caulfield sees “phony” people everywhere and never pays attention to positions of authority; Esther Greenwood refuses to be told that the “glamorous” lifestyle is what she wants, disregarding authority along the way.

Sylvia Plath’s suicide sparked fervor over The Bell Jar in the US, whereas previously it had gotten mediocre reviews. It’s a tragedy that the novel didn’t receive attention any other way, but at the same time it’s great that so many readers have been introduced to this novel. The Bell Jar talks about mental illness where, previously, few books had dared to do so. It sparked honesty in the literary world about the subject. That’s the mark of great literature.

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