The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Yesterday I reviewed a new YA novel by Meg Wolitzer called Belzhar (here), in which a depressed young woman was helped back to good health by a special English class that studied Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and then kept rather special personal journals. Reading this book made me pull my copy of The Bell Jar off the shelf and to finally read it straight after.
The Bell Jar has one of the most memorable novel openings ever:
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 sicl, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on 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.
* * *The discussion below contains plot spoilers – you have been warned* * *
The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman, an honours student in English who gets a summer internship at a glossy magazine in New York where she ‘was supposed to being having the time of my life.’ She begins to find the expectations of the kinds of life on offer to her at home or in the city as being underwhelming, constricting and stifling and she turns in on her self in her bell jar. We get flashbacks to her schooldays and her near engagement to Buddy Willard, we hear her mother’s hopes that she’ll learn shorthand so she has a fallback position as a secretary. Esther gets worse and badly treated by one doctor, attempts suicide, but was found in time and thanks to a benefactor given help in a good private psychiatric hospital. The book ends with her just about to re-enter life and return to college.
I knew the novel was very autobiographical, closely paralleling Plath’s own life – I didn’t know that she had used a psuedonym – Victoria Lucas. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967, several years later and not in the USA until 1971.
Of course, I was aware of Plath’s suicide, but didn’t realise this happened just one month after the novel was published in 1963. Knowing this makes reading the novel with its hopeful ending even more sad. The same happened when I read the late Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story back in January of this year – it too has an upbeat finish showing that the black dog of depression can be beaten. It’s just so sad that these two authors, Plath just 30 and Vizzini 32, had so much life still to come. This book has left me wanting to read more about Plath and I will start with Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson (which Shiny co-ed Victoria reviewed here).
I do hope that Plath envisaged that Esther Greenwood would be able to re-engage with life and live it to the full – there is a hint in the novel, which I was grateful for, and I’m glad to have finally read this book. (9/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963. Faber & Faber paperback, 240 pages.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson.