The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I have been unkind to Sylvia Plath. Not as unkind as, say, her life, but still distinctly unfair. I had to read some of her poetry in a Modernism lit course and took an instant dislike to the confessional free verse style that is the mother of all teen angst poetry. In my defence, I’m not very good at poetry. But  I don’t know that I deserve much of a defence because I didn’t really try. In more recent news, I have tried again, and despite my continuing lameness at poetry I now think it’s much more complex and careful than I gave it credit for. But we are not here to talk of poetry!

We are here to talk of The Bell Jar! I didn’t want to read it. From memory I said some (uncalled for) mean things about Sylvia and then proceded to complain a bunch in what I probably thought was an amusing fashion. I really should have learned by now that my complaining is never amusing. But then I read it for a book club that never panned out and was… touched. I can’t think of a better way to put it.

The Bell Jar is the (semi-autobiographical) story of Esther, a brilliant girl who has breezed her way through school, college, scholarships and prizes only to find herself trapped in her mind by her gender and time. Esther is introduced to us as an intern at a magazine in New York and appears to be “steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself.” Esther’s experiences in the glitzy life of big city publishing only lead her to feel empty and unreactive, ruminating on how she will waste her talent as a housewife and mother, struggling against the predictions of the smug men around her. An experience in the city pushes her into a downward spiral and much of the novel documents her time in clumsy psychiatric care.

I think 1001 Books  describes this one really well. “Plath makes clear connections between Esther’s dawning awareness of the limited female roles available to her and her increasing sense of isolation and paranoia. The contradictory expectations imposed upon women in relation to sexuality, motherhood, and intellectual achievement are linked to Esther’s sense of herself as fragmented.”

The blurb calls the novel “bitter and remorseless” which I think is untrue. While certainly damning, for me it read as honest and true, laying bare the contents of a young woman’s troubled mind. A girl finds her way from success to success, but when she stops she finds she doesn’t know where she is or where she has been going all this time. Looking around she finds herself cut off from the outside world by the bell jar that is her depression and the conflicting expectations placed upon her. It’s not bitter, it’s sad and quiet and empty and beautiful, and it’s still true.


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