The Bell Jar
London, Vintage, 2005, 234p
I have a whole lotta love for Sylvia Plath, despite her reputation as being rather depressing. I first read The Bell Jar during A-Level for my coursework, for which I set about on a focused study of the themes of the novel, with a particular emphasis upon gender. It has been such a long time since I read it that it felt like reading it for the first time, and again I savoured every minute.
Esther Greenwood is spending a summer in New York, having won a writing scholarship to work at a reputable fashion magazine. Holed up in a female-only hotel full of fellow winners, she is trying to make the most of this opportunity, but finds herself overwhelmed by the hypocrisy of world in which she finds herself. On returning to suburban Boston, Esther is exhausted but completely unable to sleep, and spirals into depression as she contemplates her future prospects.
First published in 1963, The Bell Jar outlines the plight of the educated, middle class young woman in a society with offers limited opportunities outside domesticity. Esther is surrounded by women who work under the thumb of powerful men or gave up their jobs to marry. When she thinks of her future, she knows that whatever decisions she makes will cut off a hundred other opportunities, and she finds herself unable to act. The feeling of completely lack of control overwhelms Esther, making her feel stifled and suppressed, like she is trapped beneath a bell jar.
Reading today, with a better understanding about mental health, the story of Esther Greenwood is disturbing and frustrating. She finds herself isolated, unable to talk to anyone about how she feels; and when she tries to explain, she is patronised and mocked. Contemporary treatments included electroconvulsive therapy, a traumatising experience that offers no solution to Esther's feelings.
The story is thought to be semi-autobiographical, with Esther's life unfolding in a similar way to Sylvia Plath's. But I always felt this novel was more universal than that, appealing to many young people, growing up unsure of what lies ahead.
But there is such beauty in Esther's sorrow. The imagery she uses is profoundly unique, demonstrating the complexity of the depressed mind. It is almost as if she sees more than the rest of us, and this deep awareness sinks her into melancholy. The Internet is flooded with meaningful quotations from the novel, adopted by readers as a reflection of their own lives.
Reading this again, I was able to distance myself from Esther's story, whereas I used to read too deeply into it and relate it to my own life. Now, I am able to note the beauty in the melancholy, seeing the nuances of the language and the detail in the images. For me, this novel is not a sad one, but one of incredible originality, poignancy and beauty.