TW: sexual assault, self harm, suicide/suicide attempts.
I can’t believe that it’s May already! This year is just flying by, and we can still barely do anything. But, we can read, and so I can keep bringing you my reviews. Today, I’m reviewing The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which is quite a well-known book, so I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it! If you’re aware of this book, you’re likely also aware that Plath dealt with severe mental health issues in her own life, and these themes are prevalent in this book. I have included TWs at the start of this review, so please bear them in mind if you are thinking about reading this book.
Although this is incredibly heavy reading, it is definitely worth the read. Before, I had only read poetry by Plath and, to be honest, I didn’t really get the love for her work based on that. Fortunately, The Bell Jar has completely changed my views on Plath as a writer. I was actually reminded of one of my favourite modernist writers, Jean Rhys, while reading this book, as both women write novels that deal with a young woman struggling to fit in and make a living in a patriarchal, misogynistic society. If you have read and enjoyed Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, then I absolutely recommend picking up The Bell Jar.
In the first half of the book, Plath sets the scene. Esther Greenwood (or Ely Higginbottom as she sometimes goes by) is a young woman looking to find her way in the world. An aspiring poet, Esther is hoping to be accepted onto a writing course, but the story opens with her living away from home, staying in a hotel with a group of other young women.
While the first half of the book has an undercurrent of misogyny and an atmosphere of oppression, the latter half is the complete opposite. After an incident of food poisoning, Esther returns home, only to be informed by her mother that she has not been accepted onto the writing course. At this point, the mood in the book immediately changes, and Esther falls into a deep depression. Nothing about Esther’s depression is romanticised: she fails to sleep, she fails to eat, and she cannot write. The way Plath portrays this depression, and the sudden descent into its all-consuming despair is incredibly powerful and visceral.
In this book, Plath also deals with the treatments used on people with mental illnesses in this period. Esther receives electric shock treatment, and is eventually admitted to an asylum, while another patient at the asylum tells her that they underwent a lobotomy. The shock treatment Esther initially undergoes is nothing short of torture, and the description of her experience is really difficult to read.
Despite dealing with such heavy themes, Plath’s writing is beautiful. Her prose flows, and I found myself flying through the book. It’s also on the shorter side, which I found really worked for this particular story, as the narrative was uncomplicated and all the themes tied into one another, allowing for Plath to really explore them in depth.
This book definitely felt like Plath really put her own experiences as a young female writer struggling with mental health issues into its creation, and it shows through in how authentic Esther felt as a character. Within just a few pages, I felt as though I understood who she was, and throughout the book her character arc made perfect sense to me, and only further developed her character.
If you are willing to read books that deal with these heavy themes, then I definitely recommend The Bell Jar. As there are scenes of on-page attempted suicide, and an off-page actual suicide, it certainly isn’t for everyone. Esther’s suicidal thoughts are also present throughout the second half of the book, creeping their way into various scenes. Their insidious nature only adds to the heavy nature of this book, yet it really added to Esther’s character. Overall, Plath is an incredible writer, and I truly appreciate why this book is so highly regarded.