CW: Discussion of depression, mental health, mention of suicide
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has probably sat in my hands for days on end—days on end including my time reading it, reading it again, and then giving it to friends. I first read the book when I was trying to get out of a reading slump amidst lockdown.
I rode my bike to the bookstore and spontaneously picked three novels: The Picture of Dorian Gray, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and then The Bell Jar. I didn’t know why I was so attracted to the book. I didn’t even know what it was about. Because of the uninformed nature of my choice, I had just given myself, by accident, the best gift. The Bell Jar quickly became my favorite book. It is a story that should be read and over-analyzed. It should be shared and discussed and lent to friends. It is a powerful story that deserves to be loved and bonded over.
The novel opens with a setting descriptor. The narrator reports that “it was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
“I’m stupid about executions,” she notes. The honesty in the beginning of the novel sets an unlikely friendship between the narrator and the reader. She goes on to say that “the idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers…It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”
‘This is more depressing than I thought,’ I wrote in an annotation during my first read. At first the descriptions felt concerning, overwhelming my senses with their intensity. I’d had one warning that the novel was going to be depressing, but I’d taken it lightly.
It’s no secret to any literature lover that this novel is supposed to be depressing. And it is, to an almost overwhelming extent. But it also shines a light of hope to those in recovery. The novel follows Esther Greenwood through so much. The reader gets to know Esther as she interns in New York, reflects upon college, and goes on bad dates. While Esther’s life becomes a bit of a chaotic whirlwind, a deep sadness develops within her—the novel then follows her journey to sanity. Esther’s recovery is inspiring and can teach every human a lesson, especially in terms of mental illness and suicide.
The Bell Jar is different from most novels I’ve read. A fair amount of mental health novels begin with a perfectly happy character who has just experienced a life-altering event. Something interesting I’ve found in this novel is that Esther never seemed to be content; there was always a quiet voice that seemed to be crying for help. I didn’t even notice the obvious signs of Esther’s breakdown until I was halfway through the novel. In the beginning, it was subtle things like, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” and slowly progressed to become much more concerning—horrifying, even.
Besides its vital, inspirational lessons, it is striking how poetic the novel is. Plath is a poet, so this makes sense. This sets the novel apart from others. It is, in terms of imagery specifically, a real masterpiece. Plath’s words bring Esther’s experiences to life in the most beautiful yet disturbing ways. Like when Esther lays in bed and watches the “faint outlines of an unfamiliar window. Every so often a beam of light appeared out of thin air, traversed the wall like a ghostly, exploratory finger, and slid off into nothing again.”
Plath’s symbols in the novel leave readers closing their eyes and furrowing their brows in thought. Through Esther’s breakdown, Plath can connect a reader with the world and the story in such interesting ways. The novel itself is a symbol—the title is, anyway. The Bell Jar refers to the way Esther felt confined and stuck. Throughout the story, it seemed as if Esther was placed in a jar. As the lid slowly trapped her inside, the glass and tainted air distorted her mind.
In the beginning of the novel, Esther had received a book of short stories as a get-well-soon gift. She read a story about a fig tree that she loved. Later, Esther thinks about it again and says, “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story…I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”
‘Do the figs represent potential?’ I wrote in an annotation. This story pulled my deepest thoughts to the surface. It added hours to my attention span and forced me to only focus on it—scratch that, it added months to my attention span, because to this day, I still think about it. Every few days I pick it back up again to read my favorite passages, which have been, without a doubt, destroyed by pencil marks or water damage from my reads in the rain. I read this story again and again and I don’t think it will ever get old.
Esther brought me to tears so many times in her journey. The most memorable passage follows. “The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.” I remember closing the book and then my eyes, longing for breath. Plath’s writing had brought me close to the character and then so far away from her.
“The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room,” closes the novel, leaving room for interpretation. It also leaves readers longing for updates from the beloved character. What happens to Esther? Where does she go?
Many tears, laughs, and frustrated groans were let out during my time reading The Bell Jar. Upon finishing it, I felt the need to express gratitude. The novel and its author are unique and inspiring; both, I am extremely grateful for. But, I also felt that I needed to thank the characters for their stories and their bravery.
“I was perfectly free,” Esther says as the lid of the bell jar lifts from above her, later saying, “I am, I am, I am,” representing a beating heart, something so full of life. On my worst days, Esther’s words become an accidental mantra. I am, I am, I am. The story fuels and gives hope despite its initial tone.
In a final annotation, I expressed gratitude again. I thanked Esther for holding on and being brave enough to do what so many people can’t do. She found the light switch in a dark room.