– SPOILER FREE REVIEW –
Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Genre: Literary fiction, Contemporary
Release date: January 14th, 1963
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Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
I had the hardest of times trying to rate this book. On one side, I enjoyed the writing, Esther’s feminist views and the honesty with which Sylvia Plath conveyed mental illness. Then, on the other, the protagonist varies drastically between refreshing and unlikable, the constant prejudiced comment put me off, and the other characters were not that powerful for me.
Let’s start by talking about Esther, our narrator and main character. First of all let me say that I may or may have not picked up this book because she is named like me. That’s mostly where the comparison stops though, because Esther Greenwood has a very unique way of seeing the world. She’s a complex character that clearly represents Sylvia Plath. At times, her thoughts are clear and lucid, others she is paranoid and becomes a very unreliable narrator. That shift reflects her state of mind and I liked that, I thought it was very well done. My problem with Esther was how self-righteous she was and how terrible she could be to other people. Not only did she make prejudiced comments about as many people as possible, but she consciously hurt them to make herself feel better. But, even though I hated her sometimes, I still wanted to read more about her and her life. I did liked her pointed feminist remarks and even enjoyed her cynicism a few times, but overall she is a morally grey character that you can’t quite love or hate.
Other characters are quite distinct, like Buddy, Doreen, Joan, and Esther’s mother, but I took their presence more like what Esther thought of them than as characters on their own accord. Buddy and Joan were the most interesting ones and they each got a role in the story, but overall they didn’t really made an impact on me because I never got to care about them.
I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.
The novel focuses mainly on two themes: mental health and how poorly it gets handled by society and the unfair sexual double standards women often face. Esther’s descent into her mental illness is done by showing, not telling. She doesn’t share her feelings, but how she talks about the world is evidence enough of her inner turmoil. Her alienation from society and what was expected from her was done really well and so it was hard to read. This came exactly in the middle of the novel and from then on, I found the book much more compelling. If you don’t know much about the hardships of depression, a lot of things will be baffling, so understanding everyone experiences mental illness differently is key. It was hard seeing Esther becoming more mistrusting, selfish and calculating, as well as unmotivated and suicidal.
My favorite part of the novel though was reading Esther’s observations on the double standards on pureness. That’s when her character shined and showed a lot of her witticism. I loved how forward and frank she was on the matters of sex and independence. This side of her character was a nice reflection of the beginnings of second-wave feminism, which Sylvia Plath must have been experiencing herself.
That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted ‘change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.
Before reading the novel, I was expecting the writing to be intricate and full of flourishes, but I was surprised when I encountered the exact opposite. At first, it was deceivingly simple, but as you keep going, the precise way in which Sylvia Plath wrote all the novel shows her poet side. Each word, metaphor and thoughtful comment was done with an almost plain language that, when it finally came together, became very deep and rich.
I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.
The plot was also very simple. The first half of the novel dragged for me and I didn’t find it entertaining or moving, but I guess it was necessary to establish who Esther was. There were some flashbacks throughout the novel that were necessary to understand some things better, but I mostly wanted to focus on the present. When I finally reached the end, I couldn’t help but be heartbroken. Comparing the novel to Sylvia’s life and death is inevitable and that made it more powerful and sad.
Overall, this novel touches on topics still relevant in our society and though I found it a little underwhelming and left me with mixed emotions, I’m glad I read it. Both mental health and women’s sexual lives are still scrutinized with prejudice and even aversion by society, so Esther’s (and consequently Sylvia’s) struggles shouldn’t be considered a thing of the past.