My apologies for having been away from my blog for a little while, but it was my 21st birthday on the 20th, and since then we have had a guest staying as well so everything has been a little hectic.
I haven’t been able to do as much reading as I would have liked since The Somnambulist, but I assure you I have been reading.
Today I shall talk about The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This novel was published just months before Plath’s suicide in 1963, and the content thus intrigued me when I heard this.
I found that The Bell Jar and Plath herself were names I was familiar with throughout my studies, yet I had never had any interest in reading Plath (due to there always being a big book next on the list)! I bought the book on a whim one day during one of my Waterstone’s blow-outs, and when I read the blurb I knew I was in for something supremely interesting.
For those of you unfamiliar with Plath, she was rather a dark poet, and The Bell Jar was her first exploration with the novel form before her suicide. Plath was severely depressed, and many believe that the subject of her novel is semi-autobiographical.
The Bell Jar is based around a young woman, Esther, who gets the opportunity to study in New York City. Whilst there however, she finds that this magical city is not to her what it appears to be for everybody else. She finds little enjoyment in the work she is doing, and is disenchanted by the lifestyle she is living, in a girls-only apartment block. Her alcohol-consuming and man-chasing best friend Doreen appears to be the only thing that breaks the monotony for her.
Throughout the novel, the reader is never completely sure of a generic plot, other than her life in New York, the life she could have had, and her life when she gets home. There are slight insights into the protagonist’s different way of thinking, but it is not until she moves home and discovers she was not accepted into the course she wanted to study on that we become aware of her mental instability.
Esther is unaware how to proceed with her life now she has had to abandon her further academic dreams, and disregards all other options open to her, such as becoming a wife and mother. With this in mind, she decides to attempt her own novel, but lacks experience to be able to write well. This is when we become aware of the decline of Esther’s mental health. It begins with her being unable to sleep, then unable to read, and ultimately unable to write. Because these academic forms are what she has spent her life working towards, Esther sees this as the end, and makes several attempts at suicide.
Esther’c closest attempt to end her life comes when she writes a note stating she is going “for a long walk”, then climbs into a wall cavity in the cellar, blocks herself in and takes a number of sleeping pills prescribed for her insomnia. After being missing for an indeterminate amount of time, Esther is discovered and sent to a mental hospital where she is treated with electro-shock therapy. Esther remains in this hospital for quite some time, and the novel ends with her entering the room of the board who will decide whether she is able to leave the hospital.
I know that many people will be familiar with this novel already, but the reason why I wanted to share this so badly is due to how it spoke to me personally. I have suffered with mental illness and depression, and the way in which Plath is able to accurately execute Esther’s actions and describe how she is feeling is eerily accurate (especially with the knowledge that this is how Plath must have felt herself). The meaning behind the title, The Bell Jar, comes from the way that Esther describes her illness as like “being under a bell jar, struggling to breathe”, and only at certain moments does she feel “the bell jar has been lifted slightly” and she can reach the air.
All in all, The Bell Jar is eerily accurate, disturbingly upsetting, and a genuine account of severe depression for those who have experienced it. Even for those who have not, this book is definitely one you should read in your lifetime, even just to gain an understanding of depression, because I can’t tell you just how upsetting it is to have somebody tell you suicide is “selfish” when you can’t see any other way out. Evidently, how Plath felt.