Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

The Bell Jar is a poignant and thoroughly impactful story that proves to be a brutally honest means of exploring and depicting a darker side of the human psyche. Here Plath tells the story of her main character Esther’s decline as she grapples with her depression and the effects it is having on her life. A whole multitude of difficult topics are dealt with in this novel, these including mental illness and depression, motherhood, sex and marriage and gender politics. Perhaps most prominent is the exploration of the treatment of mental illness in women in the 50s, making this novel one that was rather unprecedented and perhaps shocking at its time of publication. Though difficult to read and rather harrowing at times, this is a novel that I’m glad I read, and is certainly one I would recommend!

As mentioned previously, the exploration of the treatment of mental illness in women is extremely central to this novel, and was executed well in numerous ways. Probably the clearest means of depicting this was through the dynamics Esther had with others after her mental decline, and the ways this would contrast her previous treatment by and dynamics with these very same people. Her mother’s inability to see Esther’s problems as anything other than the result of her own actions and faults, and Buddy Willard’s repetitive questioning of who Esther would marry after having been at the asylum are the most prominent means of Plath portraying a changed treatment from close relations upon mental decline. This treatment is perhaps set in contrast to the treatment she receives at the asylum since this is meant to help her, while it seems the actions of people from her past do nothing but make her miserable. This depiction of the treatment of mental illness in women is carefully woven throughout the entirety of this novel, and serves to create a novel that portrays an important message.

The prose of the novel itself was incredible, and served only to aid the important messages that Plath was putting forth. Through this first person prose a somewhat ironic disconnection and detachment was purposefully created. This reflected the utter detachment Esther felt with regards to her surroundings and the world around her as we see her slip further and further into her own mind as her depression develops. This led to passages that were disconcerting and certainly succeeded in portraying this disconnection, a particularly prominent example being her casual discussion of her own suicide for much of the book. 

However, it’s important to note that this disconnected prose in no way hinders our eventual connection with Esther. Alongside being disconnected, the prose was relatively simple yet still flowed beautifully. This simplicity made for an important lack of pretension which aided the creation of a story utterly heartbreaking and hard- hitting in its honesty and truthfulness. Despite Esther not being particularly likable, feeling a great level of sympathy for this character feels inevitable, which certainly feels like a true testament to Plath’s skill and talent in writing.

This novel was also littered with brilliant metaphors, the most obvious of which was the bell jar itself. This was perhaps one of Plath’s greatest means of presenting her key ideas, the most impactful arguably being the metaphor of the Fig Tree. Trying to describe how impactful this was feels futile as I can’t help but feel I will not do it justice, and so I’ve opted to include the quote below.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Furthermore, the very structure of this novel also helped to portray the core messages of the narrative. At times the narrative felt scattered and all over the place which, though slightly confusing, became an effective means of reflecting the impact that Esther’s mental deterioration was having. Random flashbacks and time jumps, such as that in the chapter in which she visits Buddy and goes skiing, served an important purpose that made for a novel that appears rather intricately and purposefully crafted. This was a touch that I came to enjoy, though I can see why this would frustrate some readers!

Overall, this was a rather intense and hard- hitting novel, this only being enhanced by the semi- autobiographical nature of the book. But it was a book that I am glad that I read. Harrowing as it was the ending to me seemed tinged with hope, making for a novel that I was happy to have read once, but am reluctant to ever reread!

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath”

  1. Really loved your review! I agree in that it was the type of story I’m really glad I read and thought a lot about, and would recommend to others. But it wasn’t an enjoyable experience reading it. I agree wholeheartedly that it requires skill to write such a empathic story around a mc that isn’t that likeable, like you said

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great analysis, your review makes me want to re-read it. 😊 Love the picture of the figs too, it’s one of the my favourite passages in the novel, such a vivid metaphor for women’s choices then and now, we still can’t do everything we want to or “have it all”.

    Liked by 1 person

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