A Review: The Bell Jar

Here I go raving about Sylvia Plath again.

the bell jarI just finished a long overdue reread of The Bell Jar and, as usual, I was not disappointed. What I love about rereading favorite books, particularly classics, is that the material doesn’t get old. As you grow and evolve, so does your interpretation of the book. Flipping through the pages of my worn, well-loved copy of The Bell Jar, I came across sections that I had underlined and hastily scrawled notes in the margins from past reads. Sometimes when I reread a book, I can’t figure out why I underlined something previously. In this case, my annotations from the past still felt relevant, or at least reminded me of a time a particular excerpt was relevant to me. Not only do I still relate with the already scrawled notes but I also found myself adding so many more; more than I thought I would. I get so much enjoyment and empowerment from this book every time I read it and, as someone who has also struggled with depression and is currently in a good place, it was even more fascinating to re-experience the transformation Esther goes through and remember the descent of my own bell jar.

There are three stand-out categories when I read The Bell Jar: Plath’s writing style and her flair for the craft, the depiction of depression and recovery from depression, and the heavy feminist notes.

Plath’s way with words is remarkable. She has the lyrical, visual quality of a poet while also, somehow, maintaining a blunt, almost dry tone.

I felt dull and flat and full of shattered visions.

This sentence hits head on, but is lovely in its elegant cadence.

The fountain spurted a few inches into the air from a rough length of pipe, threw up its hands, collapsed and drowned its ragged dribble in a stone basin of yellowing water.

And here, the personification creates stunning imagery that runs like the water of this fountain throughout the novel. The title alone, and the way it is used within the story, is proof enough of Plath’s vision and her gift of effectively conveying her feelings.

The onset of Esther’s depression begins with disassociation. When she invents the name Elly Higginbottom while out with Doreen because she, “didn’t want anything I said or did that night to be associated with me and my real name…” she is already pulling away from reality by disassociating with herself. Later, while Doreen and Lenny grow closer back at Lenny’s apartment, Esther is beginning to feel isolated from those around her. When she writes to Buddy that she doesn’t want to marry him and give her children a hypocrite of a father after withholding her feelings in kindness and respect for his illness for so long, she has no regard for or connection to her actions and their consequences. She just doesn’t care anymore. And that feeling of floating away while everyone else is still partying on the island is all too real and familiar for me and, I’m sure, others who have experienced some form of depression.

I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head…

I love that Esther’s depression is not just in the words she uses to describe what she is feeling, but also in every action and thought. Plath manages to depict Esther’s depression in the subtleties of Esther’s character rather than through blatant informing, which is a sign of a truly great writer. She can say a great deal without explicitly stating it.

Another thing I love is Esther’s realistic expectations of recovery. She mentions at one point that her bell jar hangs over her head so that she can breathe—but it is there and waiting just above her head. Later on, deeper into her recovery, Esther has this notion:

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

Firstly, I would like to point out the words, “stifling distortions” because I love those words together and I love the accuracy and effect of those words. Secondly, it is important to note that Esther has no delusions about her illness. Finally, I would like to draw attention to this quote by Esther’s mother:

I knew you’d decide to be all right again.

This is one of the many ways Plath demonstrates the way mental illness was viewed at that time and, unfortunately, there is still this stigma surrounding mental health.

the bell jar

The final theme is Esther’s struggle with gender roles and more specifically the constraints placed on women. One of my favorite metaphors of any story is Esther’s vision of the fig tree. The fig tree was my literal dilemma all throughout college; it was the source of the majority of my strife. In Plath’s time, though, the fig tree was even more restrictive because women’s options were already limited. Esther didn’t want to her options and her choices to completely disappear. Another notable moment of feminism is Esther’s take on the article her mother mailed her. The article was about chastity and men’s preference in women being virgins—“Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her…”-and Esther notes, “Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.”

First off, the author of the article is very forgiving of men and excuses them: Of course they’ll try and get in your pants, boys will be boys. Esther has no tolerance for this. Secondly, most girls Esther’s age, in their desperation to catch a man and fulfill her womanly duties, would take that article to heart and regard it as religion. Esther has no time for double standards. She also views birth control as freedom, and doesn’t understand what the stigma is all about. She refers to sex as “something they’ll do anyway”, which is extremely accurate and correlates with the birth control debate still taking place today. Sex is a natural human urge, something people are going to engage in, and it is better to have access to protection rather than enter loveless marriages just to engage in a biological craving.

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.

I could go on and on about The Bell Jar for hours. I just think it is so incredible that Plath caught on to some of the most basic, common sense realities in the 60’s when there are people today still struggling to overcome the same types of ignorance.

What are your thoughts on The Bell Jar? What are your favorite quotes? Do you disagree or agree with my thoughts? If you haven’t read The Bell Jar yet, did this review encourage you to pick it up?

The End,

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