Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Publication date: 14 January, 1963 (Kindle version published in 2006 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Author links: Goodreads
Publisher: Heinemann
Pages: 288
Purchase links: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

Sylvia Plath's shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity. 

Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther's breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.

So, once again I get to say "this is one of those books I have been meaning to read for ages but have hesitated picking up because I have been thinking that the modern classic status makes it difficult to read and thus means a long reading process". I feel like this spring, as I have started to delve outside YA and looked for especially feminist fiction, I have repeated that above statement over and over again. Finally, after a Twitter Chat from Ely from Tea & Titles, who named The Bell Jar as one of her favorite books, I finally decided it was time to pick this up, despite the feelings of hesitation, and oh my, I am so happy I did, because THIS BOOK WAS FREAKING AMAZING and definitely became of my all-time favorites too!

I read Sylvia Plath's poetry in high school, in addition to which I have read a part of her unabridged journals, which means that Plath was not a complete stranger to me when I started reading this book. I knew about her struggles with issues related to her mental health, and I was aware for the way her life ended. I loved her poetry, but feel like the very scrutinizing analysis of her work in high school kind of pushed me back from this novel for years - I do similar kind of detailed analysis with films, and I am very aware of the way analyzing the work of someone for a long time can push you away from it for a while. That certainly happened with my BA thesis and Darren Aronosfky - I love that man's films, but if someone where to now suggest that we should watch for example Black Swan, I would run away screaming. Well, it has been almost 5 years from high school graduation, so I definitely had had enough time to distance myself from Plath.

The Bell Jar was published in 1963 with a pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" due to the semi-autobiographic elements of the novel (the names of people and places were changed, but otherwise it includes experiences from Plath's actual life). It is the only novel written by Plath, who killed herself only about a month after the book was first published in the UK. 

The Bell Jar focuses on Esther, who moves from the suburbs of Boston to New York City for a month to participate in a summer internship program for a prominent magazine editor. Unlike the other girls, who are taking everything out of the New York job and the somewhat glamorous lifestyle working for the magazine offers them, Esther fails to feel such a level of excitement. She spends time with Doreen, who is more interested about the New York the magazine cannot offer her, with its men and nightlife, but never really fits into the picture. Throughout the beginning of the novel, Esther describes several different instances from her life in New York and gives the reader a glimpse into her life, her state of mind and her plans for the future.

After Esther learns that she hasn't been accepted to summer writing program she has thought the would attend after her internship, she returns to Boston in low spirits. Her whole life, she has lived through her academic success - it has been something that she defines herself through - and now that she failed something (getting the internship), she feels like her life is without direction. She starts to question everything - her major in college, her capability to write a novel, what the future will hold for her, her decisions related to her love life, etc. At the same time, her spirits get more and more down and eventually she loses her capability to sleep and spends weeks without sleeping. She is directed to see a doctor, but after an experience of electroconvulsive therapy, she doesn't want to go back. But she just keeps falling deeper and deeper into depression, and eventually is made to deal with her situation and her thoughts.

While Plath writes extremely beautifully and at parts, the book reads like poetry, I did not have a hard time adapting to the language or understanding what was going on. Plath uses several flashbacks to narrate the story, and I think structure was extremely interesting, while at the beginning a bit confusing, though after I understood what she was doing with the form, I very quickly got back on track. Though I do not share Esther's feelings of depression, I was able to identity with her struggle of finding her own identity as a young woman. I have also always defined myself quite largely in connection to my academic pursuits, and the way Esther questions the decisions related to her academics is something I was able to connect with - will this path give me a future? Is there another academic path I could have taken that would have been more suitable for me? While I love what I am doing, these questions haunt me from time to time.

Like Esther, also Plath had a summer internship for a magazine in New York in her 20s (summer of 1953). Plath was also rejected from a writing course, attempted suicide in her 20s, and was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital (McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts). The novel also includes parallels between characters and people from Plath's life, like her patron, her editor in New York and her psychiatrist. Due to these autobiographical elements, I feel like I want to read more about Plath and then go back to this book again with more detail. While I thoroughly was engaged with this book this time around, I feel like with more knowledge about Plath's life, I could get even more out of it.

I am so happy I finally picked this one up, and now that I have read it, I not only want to know more about Plath herself, but I also want to go back to her poetry and continue from where I left off in high school. 


  1. I was so happy to see this review come up today! I did what you were talking about at the end. I read this for the first time, went away and learnt more about Plath and read some of her poetry, and then went back—it does really make a difference.

    1. I hope I have time this summer to read more about Plath. I desperately need my own copy of this novel so I can annotate it while I reread it. I used to be super iffy about writing notes in to my books, but I did it with 1984 and absolutely loved the process of doing it!


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