Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar (1963)

This book has been on my “to read” list for a very long time, however, due to the nature of Plath’s work, I set myself a “no Plath until graduation rule”, which means that my collection of her poems has collected dust, and my paperback of The Bell Jar has gone unread, until this week. (I must admit the rule had to be broken as I temporarily tutored an A Level student who was studying ‘Tulips’ for her coursework essay, but that’s okay, I guess).

Feel free to follow me on Instagram! @frazerkate

Feel free to follow me on Instagram! @frazerkate

Reading on a train is amazing, especially when accompanied by coffee (the hashtag will be explained in a later post, once I’ve gotten through reviewing all the books I’ve been reading lately!). But the environment a book was read in does not over shadow the content of the book itself, especially when it is as beautiful as this piece is. As I go through the blog, I will share a few of the pictures I took to quote the parts of the book that the woman/ feminist in me wanted to hi five, but they won’t spoil the novel at all, and I will do my best to not reveal the ending.

Depression and Mental Health

The Bell Jar tells a story that in some ways seems to run parallel to Plath’s life, the novel is itself semi-autobiographical and was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, with names and places changed to provide a distance. Plath’s own mental health issues are perhaps the most famous aspect of her life, as ever person who studies her work will find it punctuated by her suicide.

Protagonist Esther is a scholarship student, she excels in everything, she is enormously talented, but her mental health is not brilliant. In fact, I really identified with the moment at which she started to question the point of the little things we do in life, things such as showering and changing clothes have now become trivial, and this is quite a poignant moment in the novel that informs the reader exactly where the narrator’s mental health stands, before her meeting with the psychiatrist.

There is a moment in the novel where all the women that are in New York are having their photos taken to resemble what it is they intend to be professionally, Esther, of course, wishes to write poetry, but it is not the career pathway that makes this a key moment in the novel:

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Her emotional fragility is put forth through just this moment, and indeed when asked about why she looks so sorrowful, Esther can do naught but cry.

Womanhood and Feminism

Looking at what Esther does as a character in terms of being a woman, it is fascinating that she is very firm in the fact that “I will never marry”, and this made me instantly warm to her. Early in the novel she is in a hospital, and witnesses a woman giving birth. Despite being told that this is something a woman “shouldn’t watch”, Esther chooses to go ahead and watch. It is not the act of giving birth that disturbs her however, but:

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The woman in labour is given a drug that makes her not remember the pain of the childbirth, as opposed to not feel any pain at all. Esther (and therefore Plath), comments here that in administering such a drug there is nothing to deter a woman from going through this all again, “she would go straight home and start another baby”. This is clearly a sign of the feminist overtones of the novel and links in with many of the Second Wave ideas that led to the reclamation of a woman’s body for pleasure and not solely for procreation.

There is a part later in the novel when she is out with a detestable chap named Marco, whom she refers to (quite rightly) as a womanhater. He seduces her, gives her a daquiri (followed by several more) without asking what she wishes to drink (I don’t care the decade, this is sexist, if you are out with a woman she can make choices about what to drink [even if Esther remarks she was grateful to have the choice removed]), and then forces her to dance. This leads Esther to remark:

I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.

The issue with Marco is that Esther feels his pull (never mind when he attempts to rape her whilst calling her a “slut” just after this dance). He stands for far too many men that exist in this world, and it is sad that over half a century later these people still exist.




12 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar (1963)

  1. This is such an amazing review, love the details that you provide here. I absolutely love this book, so of course as soon as your review popped up in my dashboard I had to read it! What is your overall opinion on it?

    • I really enjoyed reading it. Joan was the biggest shock to me (and therefore I have avoided mentioning her in the review) and knowing her fate I want to reread it to begin to understand it all a bit more. Knowing what I did about Plath I had expectations of Esther that were fulfilled, but Joan is a big loose end for such a minor character!

      Thanks for taking the time to read my review!

      • Oh course, I can talk about Plath for days. Yes, her novel struck me as extremely powerful, especially dealing with such a heavy theme as depression. I feel like she really was ahead of her time. Depression and stress affect everyone, but as a medical condition I feel it has been mistreated and not given enough attention until this century. You make me want to re-read it so bad!!

      • It really appals me the way that mental and physical illness are treated separately still. Even though we now understand it a lot more. I never get anxious going to the doctor if I’ve been throwing up or my stomach is playing up as it often does, but nothing panics me more than going because my depression/ anxiety is out of hand and I often don’t make it as far as the phone call!

        Definitely read it again, I know it is a book I will gladly fall into again in the future!

      • Yeah I thought it was well done. Then again, I am a huge fan of Gwenyth as an actress. Maybe give it a couple months? I struggle with movies when I have just read the book. It’s impossible to include everything in film format which always upsets me.

      • That is definitely a pet hate of mine too! It winds up my family because whenever we watch an adaptation of a book that they haven’t read, I point out what they missed. The Kite Runner was the worst for that (as well as the entire Harry Potter series!). It is the reason that for me the book will always be better than the movie!

        I will definitely hunt down the movie though, so thanks for the heads up!

      • YES! Omg do not get me started on HP. To be fair over the years I’ve accepted it, but in the moment it made me fume. Have you read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I was actually really impressed with the Swedish film! Mind you it was 2.5 hours long and they still missed a few things that made me twitch but they were truly minor ones.

      • I haven’t, with books that are long I tend to look and think “how can I plan my time around that” so with studying the past 3 years it got completely neglected, even though everyone has been raving about it! I have a massive pile to get through though, because even when I don’t have the time to read, I have the time to buy books! (The thought of moving house now terrifies me because I have about 500 of them even though I essentially just have a room).

      • OMG that is amazing. You can truly dedicate a room to it and make it like an amazing mini-library of yours! I had a nice bookshelf back home but had to leave it all behind when I made the big move. Now I am starting from scratch. Sadly, like you I have a massive pile of books still to be read. I keep on buying new ones though!! 😦
        To be fair though I only started reading books for fun again after uni. In university I was just swamped with required readings!

      • I know, it is ridiculous how studying Literature can completely ruin reading for you temporarily! Some of the things I have read I have really loved and am glad I got to read them as I would never have come across them otherwise, but it is really frustrating that when a new book is out you end up missing out, no matter how much you’d like to spend a day just curled up reading it! And then tutors that know your interests outside classes ask you if you’ve read a certain book you’d mentioned you were excited about and you say no and try not to look like it is the saddest thing ever!

        If only I could have a job that just involved reading all day!

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