Review: The Bell Jar- Sylvia Plath

The first question I asked myself as I finished reading this novel was how did it take me 20 years to finally sit down and read this?

Taking place in the glamour of 1950s New York City and the quiet suburbs of Boston at the height of the Cold War, The Bell Jar charts six months in the life of nineteen year old Esther Greenwood. Esther- hard-working, studious and ambitious lands herself an internship at Ladies Day fashion magazine at the opening of the novel. An experience many girls would kill for, Esther is instead intimidated and uninspired by the exciting lifestyle and culture that surrounds her. On her return home, Esther decides to write a novel. However her lack of travel and experience in life tells her that she has nothing interesting to write, and that she has had no real plan as to what to do once her academic studies have finished.

Unwilling to conform to society’s expectations of marriage and children yet unable to set out on a different path, this restriction of women’s freedom forces Esther to descend into depression before plunging into attempted suicide and madness. A chilling novel that is both self-autobiographical and a reflection of 1950s America, Plath presents Esther in a male-dominating world in which a woman must struggle to assert her own identity. She quotes,

it would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my night-gown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates til I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.’

Told from the first person narrative, the reader is given a first hand account of her madness rather than reading a biased account of another narrator. It is also logical and even reasonable to see, as we view the world from Esther’s eyes, just how her mind has become severely destabilised. Who wouldn’t, if the only choices we had in life were whore or virgin? Passive and obedient wife or thriving but lonely career woman? Her voice is as much witty as she is perceptive, giving accounts ranging from boredom in her life to her repeated suicide attempts; I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Bell Jar from the viewpoint of its protagonist, and strongly believe the novel would not have the achieved the powerful effect it has if it had been told from another character.

The first part of The Bell Jar also seems like a coming- of-age story as it gives details of Esther’s academic years and relationship with Buddy Willard. It also hasflashbacks of her life which gives the reader as clues as to how fragments of her past may have influenced her madness and culmination in the asylum. The second part of the novel chronicles her time in and out of various mental institutions, presenting an image of mental illness and the disturbing medical procedures of 1950s America.

A bitter, honest and haunting novel which was published shortly before her suicide, Plath marks herself as a permanent feminist icon and master of vivid prose. She paints a disquieting picture of one woman’s withdrawal from reality and crisis of identity, exploring its social and psychological factors in a society that has ultimately restricted or silenced generations of women. Brilliant and beautiful: a must-read novel and more than worthy of being dubbed a classic of American Literature.

Rating: 5/5

Do I reccommend you to read it? Yes, without a doubt.

Genre: autobiographical novel/ coming of age fiction

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