The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – a Very Different Kind of Book Review

Every now and then, there’s a story behind the story. Fiction is a veil cast over a haunting reality. Many authors’ own lives were as intriguing and sometimes heartbreaking as the tales they wove into the tapestry of literary canon. Those like Kurt Vonnegut, as discussed in my review for SlaughterhouseFive, and Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, wove pieces of themselves into their own sections of that tapestry. Their books are about themselves even if they created a new identity to carry the weight of themselves to new eyes, this new persona creating somewhat of a distance in the intimate nature of the truth they were telling.

Sylvia Plath would be plagued by mental health issues her entire life. She battled a fierce and all consuming depression and was treated for psychosis, oftentimes by doctors who didn’t really understand her affliction. Supposedly well meaning doctors pumped her full of drugs which left her feeling like a shell of a human, her creativity deadened beneath a fog of chemically-induced calm. Electroshock therapy was commonly used for patients like Plath. Pretty much any time prior to the present was a nightmare for those suffering from mental illness. It wasn’t understood, and victims of it were maligned and ostracized, often institutionalized because no one knew what the hell else to do with them, and truly helping them was outside the range of abilities and knowledge for psychologists and psychiatrists of the day. We’ve come a long way since then but still have farther to go.

The Bell Jar, one of the most important works of fiction about mental health, is a raw and intimate look into the early experiences Sylvia had in the 1950’s. It’s full of sadness, fear, isolation, and torment. Esther Greenwood is a mirror image of Sylvia Plath, living the events of her life and experiencing the internal torments she’d endured a decade before, as Sylvia wrote this novel in the 1960’s. Sometimes Esther’s thoughts are extremely uncomfortable for us readers. But, if we’re being authentic with ourselves, we know this is because our own thoughts have a tendency to be uncomfortable from time to time. There is no sugar-coating her personality. There’s no going easy on us to assuage our delicate sensibilities. Frankly, this lack of artifice makes us feel more for Esther.

If you do follow my blog, you know I’ve fallen desperately behind on my postings. In truth, I feel I’ve encased myself in a bell jar of my own making. For Esther, the bell jar was a manifestation of her madness. For me, well I haven’t quite worked out exactly what it is. I’ve been plagued by mental distraction. I’ve isolated myself from those I should be trusting with the truth and sought comfort in ways that aren’t helpful or constructive. I’ve wanted validation for the wrong reasons, I suppose. I’m opening up about some really serious things at the moment, and really the only reason I am is that I know these words won’t really be read. Not by anyone who actually knows me in real life, anyway. This blog I really started as a way to try to make myself feel more like the me I used to be and the me I wanted to be all those years ago before I gave it all up and settled because it was the easy thing to do. And now, from my own little isolated bell jar, I’m wondering what it all was for.

I used to be a rock, one with sharp edges that buoyed me from the most difficult things, the one who was always there for other people because I didn’t really need anyone to be there for me. I had this. I was strong, resilient, didn’t give hardship a second thought because it was immaterial, only a stepping stone I had to pass. Those hardships were just smaller pebbles standing in my way, and they were easy to pass. Now? Well, I’m stuck in my bell jar. Like Esther, every day becomes just a little more difficult. I vacillate between numbness and complete despair, crying for hours because I just don’t know how to stop. And thanks to all those years I spent being the rock for everyone else, now I’m just a pebble floating on the surface of the water, my edges worn away by the rushing streams of everyone else’s pain, my pebble getting smaller and smaller. And I’m farther away from anyone than I’ve ever been. I don’t know how to reach out and come back to shore.

I’ve pushed people away not because I don’t want them in my life but because I don’t feel like they need me in theirs, whether they want me there or not. That can’t be normal. I saw that in Esther, too. The need to be alone in her madness manifested as judgment of other people, but it was often a reflection of herself. Don’t get too close, you’ll just fuck it up.

If anyone is reading this, I don’t want it to sound too dire. The truth is, I need to come to terms with all this. I consider it step one in finally pulling myself back up, which I am determined to do. The tiniest pebble is still made of the same tough material as the bigger rock, after all. It just has to fight a little bit harder. It has to weather the blows from the bigger rocks who haven’t lost their sharp edges yet. I guess that’s the evidence that there is still that little voice in the back of my head urging me to keep going, to take care of myself. Ultimately, I’ve still got this.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published 2006 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics (first published 1963). ISBN 9780061148514. 294 pages.


About Amy @ A Librarian and Her Books

I'm a law librarian from the state of Missouri and a graduate of Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. My real passion is in fiction, which is why I started my blog to share my thoughts with other bibliophiles. I live with my husband and two wonderful children and a collection of furry feline companions.
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5 Responses to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – a Very Different Kind of Book Review

  1. Pingback: Final Reading Challenge Update – December 31, 2021 | A Librarian and Her Books

  2. Oh yeah, The Bell Jar was a great read for me too. I didn’t know what I expected, but boy was that a trip. I like your take on this book, even though it involves a bit of the dark side, but who doesn’t have one, am I right? Wishing you all the best!

  3. Sher says:

    For one thing, it scares me how dark the story development could get. On the other hand, it also scares me how relatable it is right now, to think it was written a long time ago. I also enjoyed this novel. And I enjoyed reading your review! 🙂

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