The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
Genre: Fiction, Classics
Length: 244 Pages
Originally published: January 1963
The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.
This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
Reviewing classics is weird. I’m not the only one who feels super weird about that, right? But I’ve been making an effort to read more classics lately and I wanted to talk about The Bell Jar. This was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, and it’s impossible to read it without looking at it through the lens of her untimely death by suicide. The story is semi-autobiographical (Plath originally published it under a pseudonym in order to spare the feelings of those caricatured within its pages) and an air of hopelessness seems to hover over it with every line. (Seriously, this book is well written, but it’s infamous for being depressing for a reason.)
Esther Greenwood is a college student suffering from a profound sense of ennui. She is working a summer internship at a women’s magazine and is finding herself oddly detached compared to the other girls. Most people over the age of 15 or so will find her highly relatable and sympathetic; she has reached that point in her life where she is meant to be making decisions that will impact the course of her life. And she’s not ready.
She doesn’t know what to choose in life, but more than that, part of her is resentful at the very notion that she should have to make a choice at all. “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,” she says. I’m sure there are a select few among us who were practically born with a single-minded mission in life and a clear path ahead of them. The rest of us? Yes, we’ve felt like Esther Greenwood.
Plath’s background as a poet shines through in the evocative prose throughout the novel. While the tone is relatively casual in one sense, something that meshes well with the age and background of the protagonist, Plath breaks it up with images and metaphors that hit like a punch to the gut.
There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction–every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.
This is a relatively quick book to read, but it is not easy. I do think that it’s one we all owe it to ourselves to read. Esther’s descent into debilitating depression will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the book. Readers who loved Girl, Interrupted but have not yet read The Bell Jar are depriving themselves.
Thank you for reading! If you’ve read The Bell Jar, please share your thoughts in the comments!