Bell Jar, The

Sylvia Plath
Plath was an excellent poet but is known to many for this largely autobiographical novel. The Bell Jar tells the story of a gifted young woman's mental breakdown beginning during a summer internship as a junior editor at a magazine in New York City in the early 1950s. The real Plath committed suicide in 1963 and left behind this scathingly sad, honest and perfectly- written book, which remains one of the best-told tales of a woman's descent into insanity.

Reviews

Reviewed: 2017-03-05

REVIEW 

The Bell Jar touched me deeper than a novel has in years. That’s not an exaggeration. I was so wrapped up in Esther and her descent into depression the real world faded and hers took over.

Plath’s prose is on top form. Her use of language is as incredible as her poetry. I would have loved The Bell Jar to be twice as long just to have a chance to pour over and absorb her words.

I was impressed by Plath’s characterisation.  Esther is not a very likable character. I found her to be very abrasive at first, the sort of person to rub everyone up the wrong way. Even as her depression took hold of her and things started to fall apart she remained difficult and prickly. Yet, she was human and painfully real.

Plath is very subtle at showing Esther’s descent into depression.

For the first fifty pages or so there’s no hint of this as Esther enjoys her summer internship in New York and reflects on her on/off relationship. There are little hints during this chunk of the novel that Esther might be mentally struggling a bit.

The turning point comes when she goes home to discover, like Plath she’s been rejected by a writing summer school run by a famous author. She can’t face the thought of spending summer alone with her mother.

Something inside Esther seems to break when she’s rejected by the writing summer school. Her last shred of sanity crumbles away.

The rest of The Bell Jar took my breath away as Esther has a complete mental breakdown, tries to kill herself and starts a long, painful journey to recovery. Plath spares nothing in her bleak, heart-wrenching portrayal of Esther’s illness.

The scene that shed my first tears takes place when Esther comes round in hospital after her suicide attempt and looks at her reflection in a mirror. Plath’s description of her condition brought a lump to my throat. You couldn’t tell if the person in the picture was a man or a woman because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. The person’s mouth was pale brown, with a rose-coloured sore at either corner. OMG

I was pretty much red-eyed and teary through the rest of the novel.

There was another weepy moment towards the end of the novel when Joyce, a friend Esther made in New York who’s a patient in the same mental hospital, hangs herself from a tree.

The novel ends ambitiously and optimistically with Esther going into the room to have her interview to see if she’s well enough to be released and return to college.

I was left with a feeling Esther was going to be okay and things would work out for her. The same could not be said of Plath. She killed herself weeks after The Bell Jar was published.  

THE OPENING LINE 

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York…    

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Bell Jar is one of the most moving, heart-breaking novels I’ve read in years. It offers a glimpse of what a brilliant novelist Plath could have been.

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