I didn’t look much into the writings of Plath before I picked up this book. Last year, watching a series called Warehouse 13 on Amazon Prime, a character became entranced and depressed by the supernatural powers of Sylvia Plath’s writing desk in their storage facility. I decided then she might be worth a read. I found The Bell Jar at a used book sale last summer and it set on my shelf to collect dust for the next 8 months.
Upon finishing the novel, I found a story of depression, nearly matching my image after seeing her writing referenced on the TV series. I like a lot of Steinbeck stories, you know, the characters start out with the world on a string, and bit by bit, they lose it all. In a similar manner, Esther, too started out in the good life. She was at an internship in NYC being pampered and treated like a star as she served as guest editor for a major magazine. Page by page, it appeared evident that it was falling apart for the young woman. Neurotic thoughts started plaguing her. What was her calling in life? The boy who loved her was not enough. The scholarships were not enough. The straight-As were not enough. Unlike the Steinbeck styles, the ‘bell jar’ closed in on Esther much sooner. She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t eat, and couldn’t read. The second half of the book involved her consulting multiple psychiatrists, visits to asylums, and shock-therapy. At times, she was resigned to the fact that she had no hope of getting better and taking her life would win the battle. A biographical note at the end of the book stated that Plath took much of her own experiences to construct this novel.
The writing style was vivid, using many adjectives, similes, and metaphors through out the book, in a style a poet would lean on to build her novel. I enjoyed the graphic imagery, it really gave a clear picture of the descriptions and points she was conveying.
“My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again, it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass.”
“In the dim light of the streetlamp that filtered through the drawn blinds, I could see the pin curls on her head glittering like a row of little bayonets.”
It’s difficult to imagine the thoughts that readers shared as they read this in the 1960s, but many probably scoffed it and thought it was just a matter of ‘looking on the bright side.’ Times and opinions have changed since then and mental health has been a growing topic in the world these days. Sometimes you don’t feel good and there isn’t much of a rhyme or reason for it. The most successful people like Robin Williams took their lives and most people thought he had everything he could have ever dreamed of. It’s just not that simple. In an article I read last spring, the LA police department stated they would be teaming up with mental health doctors to treat criminals. This made me happy as I know several students I work with might end up in a dark place and need that kind of help more than being locked alone in a prison cell. I’ve heard many times over the last few years that the first steps to healing mental illness is understanding mental illness. As sad as it may be, The Bell Jar was an important step toward this understanding for many readers over the last several decades.