Book Reviews

The Bell Jar Review

There are two reasons why you’ve probably heard of Sylvia Plath.

  1. She is one of the biggest contributors to modern poetry and spoken word.
  2. She wrote The Bell Jar.

A brief background: Plath was a (posthumous) Pulitzer prize-winning poet and mother of two children. Her infamous battle with depression lasted from adolescence until her tragic death at thirty.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical account of a troubled intern’s quick descent into depression. Through the incessant bustle and gilded high-society of New York City to the experimental treatments of institutionalization, Esther Greenwood battles with the emptiness around her and a relentless addiction to self harm.

It is doubtless that Plath’s personal struggles are mirrored in the deeply troubled life of the novel’s protagonist, a fact made more poignant by the instance of her suicide less than a month after its publication.

Thematically, the book explores the entangled catalysts for Esther’s descent: mental illness, misogyny, fragile relationships. Feminist themes in her work belie a past of emotional abuse from her husband, poet laureate Ted Hughes. His double life as a serial cheater led to their divorce after only eight years of marriage. Yet, her suicide marked an almost obsession that haunted his private writings, published posthumously, and epitomized in The Last Letter, the recollection of that day (http://lovingsylvia.tumblr.com/post/1263482483/last-letter-by-ted-hughes).

Esther Greenwood’s similar relationship was a vicarious escape for Plath, who weaponized illness as a defense against the manipulative male characters of the story. The open ending of the story allows, at least, the hope that Greenwood is liberated from the patriarchal expectations she faces as a young woman. This was a false hope for Plath, a fleeting escape that did nothing to undermine the effects of her volatile relationships with her dead father and absent husband.

The juxtaposition between the harrowing account of severe depression and the neutrality of Esther’s perspective is a jarring insight into Plath’s world. It is perhaps what she is known best for. Combatant against the misunderstanding of the mentally ill in her era, it remains a titan of a book, changing perceptions of doctors, psychologists, readers, and fellow mentally ill people the world over.

Its style is heartrending, a mirror of her poetry in its detached but evocative detail. It is so distinctive it is practically unmistakeable, the sort of writing that claws its way into your heart and stays there.

Read The Bell Jar here: https://www.amazon.com/Bell-Jar-Modern-Classics/dp/0060837020

I would strongly recommend that you read some of her poetry, available for free at the link below. It sheds an interesting light onto Plath as a person, which will enhance your understanding of the book

Her poetry: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sylvia-plath

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