Monday, January 9, 2017

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: A review


The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only published novel. It was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963 and only under the author's real name in Britain in 1967. She committed suicide about a month after that. Publication in the United States was delayed until 1971, at the request of her family. 

Since that time, it has attained the status of a classic and is often cited as one of the most influential feminist works of that period. But I had never read it. Time to remedy that oversight.

As all the reading world is most likely aware, the book is written in the form of a memoir of a young woman's descent into madness and is apparently based on Plath's own experience. I was mesmerized by it almost from the first page. It is unlike any other book I have ever read.

The story is told in simple, declarative sentences. The prose is both precise, crisp, and seems utterly dispassionate in its descriptions of the most harrowing personal experiences, including her traumatic loss of virginity and her experiences with electroshock therapy. 

Although the language sometimes seems dated and even borderline racist by today's standards, such as when the character Esther Greenwood describes herself as "yellow as a Chinaman" or "looking like a sick Indian," still it is always direct and to the point. There can be no ambiguity in its meaning. 

We get to know the characters in the novel mostly through their interactions with Esther. Those interactions tell us much about the attitudes toward women and sex during the period in which Plath wrote and, unfortunately, some of those paternalistic and misogynistic attitudes are still ascendant today.

Plath writes of Esther's confusion about sex as she enters young adulthood. Why, she wonders, should men to able to fully engage in sex for its own pleasure while only women must bear the burden of the consequences? It is surely a question that women have asked themselves since time immemorial. Of course, in the '60s that was beginning to change, but even that created some confusion and uncertainty. 

Esther found very little sympathy or understanding for her feelings of confusion. Her mother's generation and society at the time had very firm ideas about a woman's place. They should get married and become wives and mothers. Or if they wanted a career, they should take shorthand and learn to transcribe their male boss's exciting correspondence. Esther's mother continually urges her to study shorthand so that she will have something to fall back on when it comes time to find a job.

Esther, on the other hand, chooses to study English literature and wants to be a writer.

Her narration of her story is poetic in many ways, but it is utterly devoid of histrionics and is a straightforward and sincere exposition of her psychological wounds and her struggle against the demons that threatened to overwhelm her. Her words make her despair palpable. They make the reader wish to be able to reach back through the years and offer her sympathy and somehow reassure her that she isn't alone and that there is hope.  

Instead, we can only watch as Plath struggles to breathe "under the bell jar," as she describes her existence. She is sad. She is depressed. She feels empty. Perhaps it would be better to simply end it all rather than to continue the exhausting struggle.

It's fair to say that everyone has gone through dark periods in their life, but, fortunately, for most of us that darkness does not reach to the depths of clinical depression. At least our experience can give us some small inkling of the hopelessness and misery of those who do fall into those depths. And it should make all of us activists for improving our mental health system and making sure that those who need help are able to get it. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. How depressing! I saw a very good movie based on her life.

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    1. It's certainly depressing to realize that she was in such despair that she took her own life. And so young! But what a talent she had for expressing that sadness. The book really makes those feelings real for the reader. It is riveting.

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  2. I love your review! I have only 6 more books to read on my 1962 list and then I am on to 1963, so I will be reading this one soon. It is one of the highly relevant books for my memoir and I am certainly looking forward to reading it while hoping my own mental health is up to the challenge.

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    1. I think this book has great relevance for most women who grew up and attained adulthood during this period. We can all relate to Plath's confusion ad despair and mourn the talent lost to the world when they overwhelmed her.

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