I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and really loved the book – though in a sad way. I have read novels that dealt with mental illness, as well as (auto)biographical accounts, and even non-fiction. This book really touched me. The initial impact of this book in 1963 must have been something to see! It is easy to forget or minimize how influential some books (or movies or art or TV shows) were – the “first” is groundbreaking but after a while what was new becomes part of life. It seems now that just about everything is discussed in the public arena, so the impact of mental health discussions being taboo seems a bit strange.
This book was and is a brave effort to describe that which is most difficult to expose – vulnerabilities, fears, weaknesses – and not in a “manufactured” or heavily plotted way. There is an honesty about this book that is rare. Although Esther’s breakdown is front and center, the other theme of young women spreading their wings is another provocative and interesting element of this book. In some ways, this component is still fresh – as young (and not so young) women are still trying to figure out what they want from life and how to achieve their goals. The restrictions placed on women are less now than in the 1950s but there is still misogynistic behavior out there that we meet personally and professionally. Social mores may have changed, but the feelings and the process of becoming an adult are still relevant – to both young women and young men. I think the honesty and (I hate to use this word) authenticity expressed in this book and in the experiences described keep its messages relevant.
Trying to make it through life and making all the decisions one has to make is difficult. Esther struggles to maintain her balance and her sanity. Sometimes she succeeds and sometimes not. She crashes and wants to die. She tries to commit suicide more than once. This is the bell jar – the madness that descends and takes over her thoughts and her life. Even when she is feeling good, she knows the bell jar can descend again. The fear that she will always have this over her head and that it may trap her is a threat that most of us don’t have to face. The fact that Esther is able to keep getting back up is inspiring but throughout the book. I was afraid for her. In some ways, it might have been easier if she wanted a more traditional life, but she wanted life on her terms … and that is to be respected. In the end, we all have to live with our decisions and if we do not fit in that traditional mold, it can be difficult and lonely and frustrating. I’ve never been suicidal, but I have felt the loneliness and frustration of trying to be true to yourself.
The book also reminds us that what we see on the surface may not reflect what is going on inside. Several characters appear to be in control of things and stepping up to their new experiences. Yet, we see that appearances can be deceiving. When alone, characters experience anxiety and fear about work, friendships, relationships, and their own ability to cope. On the spectrum of emotions, we all experience some of this but some of the characters here are living at the end of the spectrum and need help to work through these emotions and cope with daily life. Even today, seeking help can be daunting – there are issues related to access to care, expense, privacy, confidentiality, and stigma.
In some ways, The Bell Jar reminded me of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which will be coming up). For me, these two books both go beyond a good story line and well-drawn characters, they describe aspects of the human condition in ways that transcend the book – they will stay with me. It’s like they apply Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” to the individual and help us all to understand and process loneliness, depression and all of those other feelings of inadequacy, anger, fear, etc. with which we as complex human beings grapple. Many things have changed in the 50+ years since this book was published, but unfortunately some things remain the same. I give this book a 5/5.