Synopsis: Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things – grades, boyfriend, looks, career – and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality.
Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Pubisher: Faber & Faber
There is never a good time to read a depressing book, but I somehow managed to coincide my attempt at reading The Bell Jar with Iranian New Year which, if you didn’t know (because why would you?), falls on the 21st March. It was the worst possible time to read about a woman’s fall in to depression and mental illness. Celebrating spring and new beginnings doesn’t quite go hand in hand with this novel, in fact I found myself avoiding it as much as possible during that week.
That’s not to say it isn’t a brilliantly written book. Plath’s descriptions are crisp and precise which, when talking about neutral matters are charming (I got up to have a bath at midnight after reading her description of one). It’s when she depicts disturbing scenes such as giving birth (don’t worry – this isn’t a spoiler!) that the text really starts to get under your skin. In fact, at this point I was so disgusted I had to take a break from reading.
I did have a slight issue with The Bell Jar in that I simply don’t understand how it’s meant to be a feminist book. In my opinion, a feminist text is one that features a woman’s strength or struggle against society. The only two elements of Esther’s character that you could label as ‘feminist’ was that she’s an intellectual woman who isn’t sure about getting married and having children. Plath does describe the hypocrisy of men, especially when describing Esther’s first doctor; but as she doesn’t fight the stereotypes she has been given, can this novel be seen a feministic fight against a corrupt system? Or simply a portrayal of men at the time.
Personally, I feel The Bell Jar doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed as a feminist text; it is a novel about Esther’s fundamental weaknesses and failures which lead to mental illness. It is a story about a woman, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
This isn’t a gratifying book – you will not enjoy reading it, but that is the point. Esther is so seriously depressed that you simply cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel. Plath’s depiction of her emotions are so palpable that you feel yourself being drained of happiness as you read. However, as much as this novel will dishearten you, it will also captivate you. If you want an accurate idea of what it is like to be truly depressed, to be locked inside the bell jar, then this is the book for you.