Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

PAPERBACK; 234 P.
FABER AND FABER, 2013/1964
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dreams to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society that refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, was originally published in 1964 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The novel is partially based on Plath’s own life and has become a modern classic. The Bell Jar has been celebrated for its darkly funny and razor sharp portrait of 1950s society and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

The Bell Jar is a modern classic that is often found on those “30 books to read before you’re 30” lists, and it’s also often referenced in popular culture. The author Sylvia Plath is generally more known for her poetry, but I think that the novel – although originally published under a pseudonym – has through its autobiographical aspects partly contributed to the air of mystery that surrounds Plath. Going into the book I had an idea of what I might find in it, but it turns out that what I really took away was something quite unexpected.

The story of The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood, a young and highly talented student, who gets a summer internship on a popular magazine and is whisked away to a glamorous New York life with a group of other female students. Although Esther is at first enthralled by the glitz and glamour surrounding her, she also feels disconnected from it. Life outside of the controlled school settings presents new challenges and Esther begins to question her place and role in the world. And when she’s confronted with the question of what she wants to do with her life after graduation, Esther draws blank. This realisation sets Esther on a journey to find her purpose, but also herself. Played against the backdrop of 1950s society, the young woman’s story of anxiety and mental illness is poignant look at the side effects of a society that at the same time is both free and constricted.

What I really enjoyed about The Bell Jar was how it reflected indecision and living with uncertainty. Like Esther, I too have felt like I have too many dreams and have stood awake in the middle of the night haunted by fear of not being able to make up my mind. Plath captures something very live and vivid in the modern society, because even today many of the readers find themselves in the pages of this book. I honestly can’t remember when was the last time I related to the main character so much as I did to Esther for the first half of the book. However, as her world starts to crumble, there is a distance that grows between not only Esther and the rest of the world, but also between Esther and the reader. The first person narration of the slow descent to depression is fascinating, and it describes the feeling of being trapped in your mind very vividly, but I still felt at times like I was only watching from the sidelines instead of experiencing things first-hand.

Plath’s simple but poetic style of writing makes The Bell Jar a compelling read, but the thing I really found myself thinking about was the binary of self and society presented in the novel. Although Esther’s struggle is internal, it is very much also reflected in the society and vice versa. The private becomes public and the problems of the public are reflected in the private. Esther struggles in trying to decode the mixed messages of her surroundings, and feels anxious about the choices she has to make and the expectations she has to meet. The Bell Jar is a very though-provoking read in both its take on mental illness as well as the personal-public binary. I’d definitely recommend it to everyone who feels like they are standing at the crossroads of their life. It offers both perspective and support and lets you know that you’re not the only one going through the pains. I’d also recommend it to the fans of The Catcher in the Rye.

4/5

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

    • Thank you for comment! The Bell Jar was definitely a book that I had to really stop and think about before I wrote the review – and even then I ended up rewriting some of the passages.

  1. Oh,so it’s in that book that the fig tree is mentioned!
    I was very close to picking it.I remember one day it was even in my shopping cart,but just because it cost a little more,I had to take it out.I guess it’s a book of self-reflection,like Sartre’s ‘Nausea’,Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ or Milan Kundera’s ‘Unbearable Lightness’,where the plot isn’t of much importance,but rather the message.

    • Haha, I wasn’t actually aware that the fig tree quote was a thing. But yes, you should definitely read it! And thanks for the recommendations, I’m definitely in for more books like The Bell Jar.

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