Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Title: The Bell Jar 
Author: Sylvia Plath
Genre:Women fiction
First Published: 1963
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Source: Personal Copy

Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, A to Z Challenge, Women Unbound Challenge, Original TBR Challenge, Gilmore Girls Challenge
266 pages

   

Book summary
The Bell Jar tells the story of a gifted young woman's mental breakdown beginning during a summer internship as a junior editor at a magazine in New York City in the early 1950s. The real Plath committed suicide in 1963 and left behind this scathingly sad, honest and perfectly-written book, which remains one of the best-told tales of a woman's descent into insanity.

It's been three days since I finished this book, but I've been pretty much hesitating to write this review. I wanted to gather my thoughts, which were in such disarray after reading this book. Besides, I was still imagining what life had been like for Esther Greenwood, and hence Sylvia Plath, wondering how after getting "cured", the author apparently relapsed and took her life.

This is the story of Esther Greenwood's breakdown, her deepest fears and how she attempted to recover from it. In Sylvia Plath's words,

The pressures of the fashion magazine world which seems increasingly superficial and artificial, the return home to the dead summer world of a suburb of Boston. Here the cracks in her [the heroine, Esther Greenwood’s] nature which had been held together as it were by the surrounding pressures of New York widen and gape alarmingly. More and more her warped view of the world around—her own vacuous domestic life, and that of her neighbors—seems the one right way of looking at things.


My thoughts
Right from page one, I was able to identify with Esther Greenwood. I did go through a lengthy phase, some time back, when I questioned every thing I did, when I wondered if I was on the right path or career and whether I wasn't just a robot going along a path charted long ago, without giving it much thought.

Esther begins to first acknowledge her doubts when her manager has a quick reprimanding one-to-one with her.

All my life I'd told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A's, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me.

Her manager asks her:

"What do you have in mind after you graduate?"

What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I'd be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort. Usually I had these plans on the tip of my tongue.

"I don't really know," I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.

Sylvia Plath slowly sets the stage for Esther's descent into "madness", in the first few chapters, where she gets increasingly suspicious about others' actions and increasingly disregards her work. During the one month at the job in New York, she tries to grapple with boyfriend issues, girlfriend issues and also with her image. She vacillates between affection for her acquaintances and scorn towards them. She slowly starts imagining more fanciful scenarios.

Once her internship is over, and she is back home, her schizophrenic actions become more obvious. The much-conveyed impression through her illness is that everyone is out to get her. As I was reading this, another book that came to mind is Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, whose protagonist, Dolores is similarly depressed and doubtful of other people's intents.

I know this book is described as Esther's "descent into madness". But although she did have schizophrenic thoughts, I did not find them so severe as to call it "madness", or "insanity". Maybe I am taking it a little too literally, but that's the surmise I got. Of course, to go from one extreme of being very focused on her course, to the other of being convinced that she won't write again is indeed a huge negative transition, but I didn't feel that what she went through warranted a tag of insanity.

Other than that jarring note, I found this book very impactful. It paralleled Sylvia Plath's life during the six-month crash, including her well-publicized disappearance, subsequent discovery, and consequent hospitalization for shock treatment. The shock treatment episodes made me particularly cringe. It felt almost inhuman reading about the existence of such practices. Sure, it was a long time ago, but nevertheless, attempting to shock a person into sanity felt almost barbaric to me.

Sylvia Plath eloquently captured the distraught felt by the victim, who looks at the world as if through a bell jar - thereby causing the warped view of his/her surroundings. What is particularly chilling are these lines, which almost seem like a self-prediction:

How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It is always interesting to look at a world through the eyes of someone mentally challenged. What does such a person see? What does he/she think? The reader always believes the narrator. So when you read first-person beliefs about others out to harass you or others gossiping about you in a corner, it is definitely moving and harrowing.

What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.

18 comments:

Diane said...

I recall being shocked by this book when I read it --really good though. great review!

Eva said...

You know, I've never read this (though I've read some of Plath's poetry). But your review has me itching to. So well done you! :)

Aarti said...

I really want to read this, but I think I would need a partner to get through it. It sounds... difficult. Thanks for the great review!

Aths said...

Diane, I agree, some portions really get you thinking and sometimes shock you too.

Eva, I hope you get to read it. It's definitely worth it. I've not read any of Plath's poetry though, but I'd love to read them sometime.

Aarti, it's hardly difficult actually. But it jumps from scene to scene, sequentially of course. I felt it more memoir-ish. Since they are written entirely as per the protagonist's knowledge. If there is something Esther doesn't know the name of, she will only describe it but won't later provide the name. So the reader goes guessing.

Lisa said...

I read this book when I was in my early 20's--it scared the heck out of me! I think it's time to read it again. Great review!

Eva said...

My fave Plath poem is "Daddy." I think it's one of her more famous too! I'll definitely get to this-maybe Aarti and I can read it together. :D

Aths said...

Lisa, I found some portions shocking too!

Eva, I should read that then! And yep, Aarti and you could read it together! That will be a great way to kick some discussions as well! Have you also read "Girl, Interrupted"? Apparently, it is very similar to The Bell Jar and much recommended too.

Meg said...

Confession: I know this book is considered a classic, but I've never even touched it -- let alone taken the time to sit down and see what it's really about! But I read your review from start to finish; it sounds like a very compelling read. Great review!

Aths said...

Meg, thanks! I picked this book up to read, because I am very interested in the subject matter, and it was well worth it. You should try it! It's good!

Amy said...

I read this book a long time ago, and it's one that I just couldn't remember the specifics. Thank you so much for your detailed review! You not only brought the details back to the surface of my memory, but made me want to read it again.

Marieke said...

I think I've always been afraid of this book and haven't read any Plath - that will have to change, obviously! It sounds like a book I could relate to, somehow. Thanks, great review.

Aths said...

Amy, thank you for the nice words. :) Glad that my review was helpful!

Marieke, I can relate to that. I've been afraid too. This book was on my shelf for 8 months, before I finally got the guts to pick it. I hope you will read it!

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

This is a book I want to read and the Gilmore Challenge seems like a good time to do it. Thanks for the wonderful review!

Aths said...

Sheila, hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Young1 said...

I really need to read this book - i have thought about it for many years and never got round to it. :D

Athira / Aths said...

You should! It was a book that languished on my shelves for ages too. I was glad that I finally read it.

Beatriz said...

Shock treatment is still used for extreme cases.  It's much improved and gentle...though the thought of it still scares me.  I loved this book & have read it 3 times.

Athira / Aths said...

The shock treatment is a pretty sad thing. To shock people's brains into functioning "normally" - what a horrible thing!