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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Book Cover

When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Kelly

September 10, 2018, 5:14 pm

My sister, who was a talented poet in her own right, was a great fan of Sylvia Plath. She (my sister) battled more than her share of demons, so I think she could very much relate to Plath’s work.

Too dark for me – at least at this stage of life.

Jacqueline Pye

September 12, 2018, 7:31 pm

It’s ages since I read this. Poor Plath, born maybe 50 years too early. Nice review.

Charlie

September 17, 2018, 9:37 am

Kelly: I’m sorry to hear this Kelly, you must miss her. Happy to hear about her poetry, though, that’s a great thing.

Jacqueline: That’s an interesting thought which I hadn’t considered; it would be interesting to look at in the concept of today. Thanks.

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