Image courtesy of goodreads.com
By Caroline Morris
Everyone knows the story of Sylvia Plath’s life— that is to say, everyone knows the story of Sylvia Plath’s death. She stuck her head in the oven and killed herself.
There was far more to Plath’s life than how it ended. She was a woman of great intellect who received both adulation and rejection; she had two children and had struggles with mental health; she got married and she was betrayed.
Much of this gets lost in the nature and style of Plath’s death. But her death did not appear out of the blue; it was the culmination of all the life she lived beforehand.
The Bell Jar, Plath’s 1963 semi-autobiographical novel, allows the reader inside her life and offers, hopefully, a glimmer of understanding of what it was like to live inside her head.
Esther Greenwood is Plath’s “body double” and the protagonist of The Bell Jar. The novel follows her journey from an ill-fated New York City magazine internship to her childhood home and ultimately to the psychiatric facility, all while tracking her spiral into madness.
Plath does a masterful job of keeping her reader invested in the plot and rooting for Esther’s recovery. The novel is narrated by Esther, who reflects back on her life from a faraway vantage point. We even learn three pages into the novel that Esther may have her own family at the time she is telling this story.
“Last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with,” Esther says.
Despite this knowledge that Esther is recounting her experience from the future and telling us that she ultimately makes it through, Plath makes us forget. She makes us worry. Her writing style is incredibly immediate, so that even with past-tense verbs, Esther’s struggles feel horrifyingly present.
Plath also wrote Esther’s character so the reader empathizes with and understands the decline of Esther’smental health, while never agreeing with her inclinations towards apathy and suicide. To achieve this balance, where the reader can enter into the state of mind of the character without absorbing the character’s beliefs (within the context of the novel), is a rare accomplishment.
Beyond the personal stake each reader has in Esther’s future, the novel also impresses in the details. The symbolism and imagery of the novel are so specific that I could see the dead babies inside jars as if they were in front of me while also understanding that, in the figural sense, Esther was one of them.
But one of the most significant elements of the novel is its namesake: the bell jar. The novel deals primarily with themes of mental health, and the bell jar is the strange and ingeniously perfect metaphor for mental illness.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream,” Plath writes.
This description evokes the chilling reality that is mental illness. Furthermore, Plath is able to portray the inescapability of a mental health disorder.
“Wherever I sat… I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air,”Esther describes.
Her use of sensory language is incredibly effective in evoking the “snowballing” experience of mental illness, of its inevitable and circular increase that is inescapable, because it is contingent on the mind, not the body.
Plath also perfectly captures the experience of having recovered from, or at least managed, a mental health disorder.
“But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday―at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere―the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
This insecurity is honest and accurate. Even when one has made improvements on the state of their mental health, there is no guarantee that the good will last. The fear remains. Few novels address the post-recovery reality of mental illness and even fewer do it with such acuteness.
But the novel does not exist entirely in darkness. Plath, or Esther, whichever you prefer, has a comedic twist that lightens this heavy world. Esther’s take on marriage and men is wry and relatable, even more than half a century later.
“I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.”
So the final question: Is this classic worth the read?
My answer: absolutely.
The Bell Jar dives into themes that remain in conversation to this day. It captures the experience of mental illness with unparalleled acuity, engages the conversation of a woman’s role in the working world, and explores the difficult intricacies of interpersonal relationships.
All of this is done with such poignancy that the reader aches for Esther, as well as Plath, who shared much of her life, if not her early end, with her main character.