The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Review by Declan R)

he Bell Jar is a novel written by Sylvia Plath, a woman who suffered from clinical depression for most of her adult life. It was published in 1963 just one month before Plath’s suicide. The book’s protagonist is Esther Greenwood, a young woman who struggles to cope with society’s pressure and expectations of her. The protagonist is often seen as the author’s way of displaying her own struggles with depression and the book is often seen as semi-autobiographical with similarities between the author’s and the protagonist’s lives very prevalent. The book’s publisher is Heinemann and the book is 244 pages long.

As mentioned earlier the story revolves around Esther Greenwood, a recently graduated student thinking about her future and prospects with limited aims. She visits New York City on an internship expecting to be amazed by the glamour and prestige of the place but her experience left her scarred and saddened. She didn’t like what she perceived as her realistic chances in the world. Her job working at a woman’s magazine under the eye of its editor Jay Cee fills her with little hope and she becomes increasing lost. She thinks back to her first “real” relationship with a boy named Buddy who she thinks will eventually become her husband even if that is not what either of them wanted. While working at the magazine she befriends Doreen, an outgoing woman whose light hearted and satirical attitude to their situation lightens her up. However she identifies with and feels sorry for Betsy, another girl who is seen as “too good” and too well behaved. She returns to her home in Boston with low self esteem and hopes. She arrives home to find that she did not get into another academic course she had applied for. She struggles to work out what to do over the summer and lacks drive and direction, adding to the mental stress she is under. She finally decides to write a book probably a novel which she will write over the summer. She worries about her future as options such as motherhood do not fill her with joy and expectation. Her mother coerces her to see a therapist who Esther immediately takes a dislike to. She is even more angered after Dr Gordon prescribes her electroconvulsive therapy (ECR). She is traumatised by the experience and tells her mother that she will never go back to the centre. The event arguably leaves her more depressed and she describes her life as being like a Bell Jar as she struggles for breath. She decides to attempt suicide and tells people she’s going for a walk whilst she sneaks into to the basement and tries to overdose on sleeping pills.

I found the book to be extremely gripping and extremely well described so that you can easily picture the characters and the surroundings. Esther was a wonderful character who feels almost real and is very easy to relate to. She is wonderfully described and her feelings and their description puts us in the mind of Esther and those that suffer from depression. Esther is a good smart person who is trapped by societal norms and pressures. She feels helpless as she will slowly ebb away into nothingness and fears this as her future. She captures the mind of many who worry that they will become just a tiny cog in society’s working, easily expendable and could be lost or let go without any change to the world. We fear and hate the idea that we can be let go so easily like an object rather than the living, breathing creature that we are and we long for purpose. I particularly find her experiences in the mental hospital and her talks to and trust in Dr Nolan, her new therapist who she develops a much closer relationship with, moving. The way she talks about everything that has ever bothered her and why she feels so lonely and depressed. The shock when Esther discovers that she has to go back for ECR and Dr Nolan didn’t tell her. The complete lack of feeling as the one person she thought she could trust lied to her and the complete regret shown by Nolan and how she tries to win back what she lost. The scene was fully of affection and care and really makes us feel for Esther and gives us feelings of both joy and sadness with contrasting feelings over the betrayal but happiness over their understanding and sorrow for each other. Another sad scene is when Esther casually attempts suicide by swimming away from the shore. This scene is deeply saddening as we see quite how little Esther values her life and how she can make a breezing decision to end it as one might decide to have a drink or perhaps go for a walk. We notice how little she cares any more as she has commiserated herself to her fate of eternal misery. She convinces herself that there is no hope and that the hope and belief only lead to further misery. This scene I find to be one of the most powerful of the entire novel.

The book has few faults but one major one was the story on the whole seemed predictable and easy to work out. The first half of the story revolves around her rather sad life thus far and talking about why she wants to kill herself so it becomes obvious that at some point in the book she will attempt suicide, whether she would be successful or not the reader may be uncertain of but the attempt I was certain of relatively earlier on. This took some of the anticipation and excitement on what would happen next for a portion of the book until she finally commits the act. Perhaps this was what the author was going for but in my opinion it takes away some of the fun of attempting to figure out the plot of a book whilst reading it. Also I feel that the back story with Buddy is described in too vague and generalised terms compared with the rest of the novel. Their experiences are seen in a distant way which does not immerse you in Esther’s thoughts unlike the majority of the book which surrounds you with her emotions and we almost become the protagonist. A final point is although it implies a “happily ever after” ending I feel that the uncertainty of Esther’s ending leaves the reader dissatisfied as we never find out if her experience was all worth it and whether she was able to live a happy life free from social pressures.

Overall, The Bell Jar is an extremely good novel. It is entertaining, moving and a masterpiece. I would recommend this to teenagers and younger adults as a drama book. It really makes you see the world through another pair of eyes, or rather a bell jar.

9/10

By Declan Rice

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