About the book
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is her only novel and it was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. The edition being reviewed was published by Faber and Faber and is 240 pages long.
Working in New York one hot summer, Esther Greenwood is on the brink of her future. Yet she is also on the edge of a darkness that makes her world increasingly unreal. In this vivid and unforgettable novel about the struggles of growing up, Esther’s world shines through: the wide-eyed country girls, her crazed men-friends, hot dinner dances and nights in New York, and a slow ride into breakdown.
What I thought
The Bell Jar is a book that I had to read for my Gender and Sexuality class at university. Unlike some of the other books I have had to read over three years, this one was enjoyable and interesting.
The Bell Jar begins with Esther Greenwood explaining how she came to be in New York and how she was feeling during that time. Plath adds in current events of the time to make it easier to relate to the place and time in which it is set. The first descriptions of New York are not the most pleasant and while explaining about the extravagances of the magazine industry, Plath manages to make the city seem dark and grey. The opening of the book made me want to know more about Esther, her life and how she spent her time in New York.
As Esther’s time in New York is further explained, it is clear quite quickly that she doesn’t feel at home there. Esther, used to being known for doing well in school and winning scholarships feels like an extremely small fish in a huge pond. Although the other characters are not described in too much detail, Esther makes it known that she doesn’t feel anything like them and doesn’t think that she has much in common with the other girls at all. The way that Esther’s character is written would make me think that at the time the book was published, women everywhere would have been able to relate to her. She isn’t the most confident of characters and is open about her fears and worries about the world and her future. This was something that I found really intriguing about Esther.
The Bell Jar is partly autobiographical of Sylvia Plath’s life and deals with the topics of mental illness and suicide. These themes are strong throughout the whole book. When in New York, Esther knows she doesn’t quite fit and this begins her slow descent into depression and an intense sadness. Even though Esther keeps her personality throughout the book, parts of her slowly get lost in the big world that she is experiencing. She is cold and calculating about some major issues like losing her virginity and her views about marriage are far from those of other women during that time.
Esther becomes mentally unstable following her return home from New York and this is where the novel mirrors parts of Plath’s own life. I thought that this was going to be a really depressing book after knowing the subject matter but everything was so interesting instead. Watching Esther’s mental health get worse and worse and seeing the different kinds of establishments that she was put in gave me more perspective on what Plath’s own life would have been like. Due to Esther’s condition and her life experiences, Plath made me like her but also feel empathy for her at the same time.
The Bell Jar is a wonderfully written novel full of poetic prose and crisp descriptions. While the novel tackles tough themes, especially for the time it was written, it is a compelling read and one that I enjoyed thoroughly.