The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
The book is a semi-autobiographical look at a young woman’s descent into madness, a mental breakdown, and being placed into a mental hospital. Plath committed suicide shortly after the book was published.
The story follows a young intelligent woman from the Boston suburbs named Esther as she tries, and fails, to become a success in the New York magazine world. As well as not finding enjoyment in her career, she also sees the big city as boring and isolating, rather than the glamorous place she had imagined. She has few friends during her time there, and eventually moves back to her family home in Boston.
Unsure of what she is supposed to do in life, Esther becomes increasingly depressed. She contemplates suicide, and makes a few half-hearted efforts. During this time she visits a mental hospital and is given electroshock therapy, which seems to make her mental state worse.
Finally she makes a serious attempt to take her own life, but survives. She is moved to another mental hospital, and again undergoes electroshock therapy, which this time she believes is helping. She also has a diaphragm added so she doesn’t need to worry about becoming pregnant, even if she chooses the wrong man. The story leads to a final moment in which it is decided whether or not Esther is allowed to leave the hospital.
The book was not originally published using Sylvia Plath’s real name. Her real name was only used after 1967.
Plath was married to Ted Hughes, a famous poet.
The ties between Esther’s depression and Plath’s own are well documented. Plath’s suicide not long after publication resulted in a strange fascination with her mental illness.
Although most famous for its theme of depression, most of the book actually looks at the lifestyle of women during the time: the awkward mix of trying to be independent and career-driven, but also having doubt about one’s own attractiveness and social status. Moving back into her family home is seen, by Esther, as being a failure.
The book also contains humour, mostly through Esther’s opinions of the idiocy and shallowness around her.
A re-designing of the book’s cover in 2012 caused some controversy: although most people associate the book with depression, the cover highlighted Esther’s want to fit in to New York life. Some said the cover made the book look like ‘Sex and the City’ style chick-lit.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.
New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-fresh wetness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.
Initial reviews of the book were average, with some positive notes. However, the fascination with Plath’s own mental state increased the interest in the book. It has been said that many people confuse Plath ‘the writer’ with Plath ‘the life’. Nonetheless the book is now viewed more favourably, and The Bell Jar has become synonymous with youthful depression.
The book is now often included on high school or university English Literature programmes.