This post written by Vy at Ice Queen, Yous Queen.
I’d never heard of The Bell Jar but I’d heard of Sylvia Plath years before I ever laid eyes on this book, actually because of one of those simulation games based on Degrassi, where one of the potential comebacks when talking to a character was “Who pissed on your Sylvia Plath?” But anyways, that’s irrelevant. The Bell Jar first came into my possession from my sister’s book collection. Both my sisters had read it, and the way they talked about it, I feared it would be mediocre at best. But I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
The Bell Jar is a somewhat autobiographical novel following the protagonist, Esther Greenwood’s start as a journalist and novelist, but her downward spiral into depression. I loved and related to Esther and how Plath wrote her point of view. I loved how static the other characters were, and how fluid the writing was, the plot portrayed as if it were a movie. Despite Esther’s mental illness, all her views and experiences are spoken with lucidity. Returning to my point about the other characters, one of my all time favorite supporting characters was actually Esther’s so-called fiance, Buddy. Their relationship is central in Esther’s development as a character, and he is overly representative of the archetypal male in those times, just as Esther’s mother is a symbol of all working women at the time, doing typical “women’s work” like stenographer and raising a family.
The Bell Jar, like The Fountainhead, will always hold a special place in my heart for its tackling of the important idea of identity. Esther’s downward spiral stems from her having nothing to root her identity to now that she’s not in school, and she is faced with latching onto something else, like motherhood, her novel, a man, etc. And I love that this novel is quite daring and forward in its portrayal of the mentally ill. Although Esther’s mother is rigid in her belief that depression is a choice, Plath, through Esther, shows a deep insight about the mentally ill through her experiences with psychiatrists, those around her, and herself as she fights through the stigma of being in a mental hospital.
One of my all time favorite things about this novel, is its conclusion, and just how open ended it is. It can be argued that Esther has not grown at all and only relapsed into the vicious cycle of her illness although she doesn’t even know it because ultimately she has sacrificed her identity and free will because of her illness. Others will argue that the ending marks Esther’s recovery and return to society and a healthy existence. However you choose to look at it, it’s refreshing to read fiction that is based around a strong female character of different background – there is no love triangle of admiring men who lust after her untamed spirit. There are only the conflicts within Esther and between Esther and society.
The voice and style of this novel are truly distinct, as is the story, and the characters. It’s truly a shame that The Bell Jar was the only novel ever published by Sylvia Plath before her untimely death; her poetry is beautiful but lacks the clarity and voice of this novel.