The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Plath has always been a woman that interested me. I distinctly remember her name cropping up in English Literature lessons and instantly that small spark of intrigue was lit inside of me; I would regularly encounter quotes of hers on tumblr and often chose to reblog them because they were always poignant, powerful and set the wheels and cogs of my mind racing. Her comments about mental health always touched me because of their honesty and I felt so inspired by this unusual woman I kept hearing about. When I learned that she had killed herself shortly after publishing her one and only book ‘The Bell Jar’ I felt an aching sadness that such a talented lady didn’t have someone there to bring her back from the brink of such darkness.
I set myself the task of finding myself a copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ – I have recently started to altogether avoid Waterstones after years of spending far too much money on books because I was being overly anal about wanting it to be ‘New’ so I knew I’d have to have a good look around in some local charity bookshops. I popped in to one tiny one in a town near where I live – and I mean tiny, it’s the littlest bookshop I’ve ever been in – doubting I would find it but decided to look anyway. Lo and behold, there it was, snuggled in between several other considerably larger hardbook volumes by some author or another. I paid a pound for the book and I was itching to read it as soon as I’d got home.
Esther Greenwood is a college student from Boston; she manages to get a summer internship working for a magazine in New York. Despite it epitomising what the majority of young women would seemingly dream of – the parties, the clothing, the lifestyle, the fame – Esther herself feels somewhat disillusioned, lost and not stimulated by the big city and the people within it. Her disillusionment with society is an indicator of the onset of depression and her lack of desire to conform to the societal norms and pressures on young women of the time is poignant and plays a significant role in the decline of her mental health; she feels trapped by the concept of being unable to have sex before marriage as a woman, having to marry at all and bear children. When Esther eventually returns home to the suburbs of Boston to live with her mother, she discovers that she has been denied by a creative writing course but decides to spend her summer writing a novel. Her mental health deteriorates rapidly and what follows is a disturbing account of how Esther is then treated for her depression and later, her attempted suicides.
‘The Bell Jar’ is considered semi-autobiographical as so much of the novel reflects Plath’s own life and experiences with clinical depression – often referred to as a ‘Roman à clef’; a novel with the semblance of being fictional but in fact being an account of real life events. I think the most disturbing aspect of this novel is the fact it is a chillingly honest account of someone enduring the darkness of depression which is in itself terrible but what makes it worse is that it was at a time where it was painfully misunderstood; the electroshock therapy, the way Esther is treated by her fellow human beings – including her mother – and the fact she is essentially locked up in a mental hospital is shocking, difficult to read and process. My heart aches for the volumes of people forced through such a horrendous course of ‘treatment’ to ‘cure’ them at such a time (1950s/1960s) Despite 60 years not being a particularly large timescale in the grand scheme of things, you would have thought that attitudes towards mental health would have evolved enormously in this time but in many ways reading ‘The Bell Jar’ only highlighted continuing stigmas and ignorance around mental health today; it remains vastly misunderstood by not just the common man, as it were, but through many of the upper echelons of society. Admittedly we may not be giving anyone electroshock treatment anymore – not in this country at least – but despite a degree of evolution in understanding and overall attitudes, mental health as a subject and its sufferers remain taboo, bizarre, strange, shunned, discriminated against…
Despite it being such a sinister and troubling topic, Plath’s skill as a writer is undisputable; she manages to create such incredible depth, beauty and realism to mundane tasks and macabre, themes and her rampant feminism is an absolute delight. Here are a few excerpts that particularly plucked the chords in my heart:
‘Later Buddy told me that the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain… I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent’
‘It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married? …I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not’
‘There was no waste-basket in sight, so I crumpled the flowers up and laid them in the deep white basin. The basin felt cold as a tomb. I smiled. This must be how they laid the bodies away in the hospital morgue. My gesture, in its small wall, echoed the larger gesture of the doctors and nurses.’
‘The dark felt thick as velvet…cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths’
‘I knew I should be feeling grateful to Mrs Guinea, only i couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or a street cafe in Paris and Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’
The concept of a Bell Jar, the namesake for this novel, entrances me; essentially it is a metaphor suggesting that those who suffer with mental health issues are under a glass jar in their own foul air, stewing in it, trapped in it and unable to escape while others are trapped under similar jars and the rest of the population breaths the free air. As someone who has grappled with depression, I could completely relate with what Plath was describing and that’s all I’m going to comment about that. It spoke to me as I’m sure it has and will continue to speak to many others.
Plath is unique for her honesty; her poems and this, the only novel she wrote, are so tangible and real that you can almost taste her bitterness on your tongue, her lack of remorse is almost touchable, her disdain and pain can almost be smelt. What is disconcerting but admirable is Plath’s cool manner when tackling heavy subjects; the descriptions of several suicides are concise, to the point and curiously devoid of intense emotion. Her heavy and prolific criticisms of societal pressures on women to fit neatly into little designated boxes of either be a virgin or a whore and subservient to men in some way or another are a delight to read and absorb. There is a wonderful analogy of life for a woman through the use of a fig tree; each fig represents a different life choice – a career, marriage and children but Esther (and therefore Sylvia) finds there are too few figs available to her and is unable to choose the one fig she have been constrained to as opposed to many.
Overall, ‘The Bell Jar’ is an astoundingly poetic novel that tackles a sombre and harrowing topic head on; this isn’t a light read but should rather be read in concise chunks and absorbed carefully. The book reverberated with aspects of my own life which I found difficult at times and I would advise readers to be wary of this novel for that reason.
Plath was an incredible woman and has truly left an astounding legacy in the form of this novel, I only hope that the women of today feel that they can choose more than one fig and that we can help those trapped in their own Bell Jars, as Plath was stuck in hers and never received the help she truly needed.