I can say right now that The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a must read. It’s one of the most important, most profound books I’ve ever read, adding to a list of life changing books. Anyone who has ever had a dark night, who has ever found their mind numbed to depression or screaming with anxiety, you need to read this book.
Sylvia Plath was a haunted woman. Primarily a poet, she knew how to craft prose- and I expected that from her fiction novel, worrying it would be a dense read. I was proven wrong, however. The Bell Jar reads like an elaborate lovesong to the inner psyche, but it is written simply, like an old friend. A familiar story, with a girl not so different from you or I. Written in an older time, of course, it has an edge of wonder to it, but it still is frighteningly familiar. It follows the tale of Esther Greenwood- a strong imitation of Plath herself- as she bounces from piece to piece of her young adulthood. From the highschool days where she met a man she only half liked but thought she might marry on principle alone, to the days as a lady of the city, with her various competitions and events, we learn Esther is a spunky young thing with a sharp outlook on life and everything going for her. Moreso, we learn of Esther’s love for a woman named Doreen.
I will admit, my personal examination of this novel tells me that there are deeply closeted homosexual vibes. I know that Plath herself married a man- but I want to speculate that she was at the very least bisexual, or knew someone who was interested in the same sex well enough to write from their perspective. Among the biggest themes of this novel, and the most subtle, is the fact that Esther was only ever happy with Doreen. The men in her life brought uninterested attention (Buddy Willard), traumatic assault (Marco), sexual experimentation (Irwin), or vague curiosity and adventure for a different life (Constantin). I do not believe that any of them were any form of love for Esther. I think that they were each a sort of experiment for her, one she poked and prodded to figure out the relations between a man and a woman, with varying levels of success (or none at all). But the love for her friend Doreen came through quite clearly, and undeniably was the strongest relation in the book. Doreen was a woman who had emotionally scarred Esther, who had obliviously gone off with a man and dropped her like a hot potato, but nonetheless was the woman that Esther cried for in her darkest moments. When it was a friendship beyond repair was when Esther truly spiraled, spurred on by the destruction caused by others in her life. I believe that anyone who has ever had “the one who got away” or who has been in the closet will find a good deal of subtle hints in this novel that they will be able to relate to.
I watched in heartbreak as she lost herself, and I knew what she felt. Plath does a wonderful job at making you relate with the slightest, most subtle lines. Many times I felt my heart ache as the words seemed plucked straight from my own mind, relating to the despairing young Esther more than I want to admit. Humor goes throughout the book, growing darker with Esther’s psyche. We watch as Esther, never truly changing in character, goes from a healthy young woman, to a woman whose mind is suffocating her. Like a bell jar being placed overhead, trapping her with limited oxygen and no way out. Then, with much insight into the perception and handling of mental health- and no doubt, personal experiences Plath herself had in her lifetime- there is a swell in the story again. New oxygen breaks through, the bell jar lifting with beautiful symbolism, and the end of this dark, depressing novel is left hopeful.
That is, unless you know Plath’s actual history. This book reads like her biography, only faintly veiled under Esther’s visage, and I loved the haunting melody it played. There is no truer depiction of depression, in my opinion, than The Bell Jar. This was written by a woman who fought demons. This was written by a woman whose desire to lay in bed and think often outweighed her desire to breathe or eat or thrive at all- and while the world went on around her, she stood still. The impression this book gives will stay with me forever, and the imagery gives me chills to this day. The story is a wonderful one, even if you relate to it less than I did.
I think that people often view depression with bleary eyes. It’s like sinking into murky waters, opening your eyes, and trying to see through the muck as it stings against your eyeballs. I view depression as a sight issue. Plath viewed it like you would a muffled hearing issue. Trapped in a bell jar, listening to the outside world but not hearing more than distant mumbles and noise with no words to make out. White noise. It’s a beautiful description, and Esther’s journey is succinctly put in this way. The most tragic part is that where Esther had hope, Plath did not- in real life, the author met her end with her head in an oven, after years of torturous depictions of her depression and cures that never worked. I think knowing that only makes this read more profound.
This book will always matter to me, and I think Plath is a severely underrated author and poet. I would urge anyone to read this book, it’s deeply touching and truly life changing. Simply incredible- the world will never know a writer like Plath again.