So I’m back again with another book review and this one is one quite dear to me. I bought it purely because I had heard about it vaguely, I knew it was Sylvia Plath’s only novel and that it was very well reviewed by one friend and harshly criticised by another. It caught my interest and made me part with my money. And now I’m here telling you what I thought about it. Cue the obligatory overview!
Esther Greenwood is a young woman from the Boston suburbs who has won a summer internship with a magazine in New York which, rather than invigorating her makes disorients her, affecting her deeply. After a tumultuous time in New York, Esther returns home increasingly depressed. This depression is only further increased by her lack of identification outside of doing well academically.
Unable to find peace or even sleep, even with the “help” of a psychiatrist, she continues to spiral into depression and attempts of suicide. And there I shall leave you on tenterhooks and hopefully searching Amazon and adding it to your basket for purchase.
I feel like I have spoiled more of this book than I intended, but it is really the final stages of this book that provides the master stroke so, although much of the book’s plot has been revealed, I do not think I will have discouraged the great majority of you from reading it.
Before I get into the bones of my thoughts on this particular book, I feel I should give some pretty well known background on Sylvia Plath and the book itself.
The book was published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Under a month after The Bell Jar’s publication, Plath committed suicide. Debate still swirls around on whether Plath truly meant to kill herself or whether it was merely a cry for help, as Plath had previously attempted suicide in 1953. The parallels of depression, suicide attempts, psychoanalysis and psychiatric treatment is palpable in the novel and one can be forgiven for reading Esther Greenwood as Sylvia Plath.
But leaving aside the Sylvia Plath tribute, let’s dive into how good the novel is. While a purely innocent reading of the novel is rendered impossible because of Plath’s death so soon afterwards, I feel I can say that this novel would have become a classic if Plath had lived.
I may be speaking out of turn here, but whether or not it would be a slow burner in terms of hits, I think it would have found its audience and exploded on the literary scene. While the beginning of the novel appears to be monotonous, this all sets up Esther’s decline into suppression and attempts at suicide so, when you think back, it gives you the sense of impending inevitability in Esther’s decline. In a way, the monotony of the New York section gives credence to her view that her life without academic approval is somehow directionless and pointless.
When returning home, she shows she views her academic prowess to have been, for lack of a better phrase, almost wasted, with Esther stating:
“I had always looked down on my mother’s college, as it was co-ed, and filled with people who couldn’t get scholarships to the big eastern colleges. Now I saw that the stupidest person at my mother’s college knew more than I did.”
Esther even tries to convince herself to get work in order to progress with her education, but realises she does not have, or even want, the skills that would help her, like shorthand. Esther muses that she could take a year off and become a waitress or a typist, but comes to the decision that:
“I couldn’t stand the idea of being either one.”
This lack of drive in her life and the realisation of her emptiness leave Esther unable to write or read and would eventually precipitate to her eventual suicide attempt. This is particularly resonating, in my opinion, to people then as it is now. People see academia as diving board into an extraordinary life filled with wildly wonderful things that would make the mind froth with excitement. But the reality leaves you dull and wounded inside, as the realisation that you are no different to someone who left school at sixteen slowly overwhelms you, sinking into the bone.
It would be wrong of me to also leave out that her depression is caused by her feeling that she does not belong to any convention of womanhood, neither aspiring to be a mother or to the type-cast role of women in the work place, such as shorthand writing. Esther is caught in a culture she does not seem to feel in touch with. She wants to be more but feels she must conform or, at the very least, be something greater than she feels she can be. This gives The Bell Jar a brilliant edge which makes the novel much more readable, yet more tragic as we realise the stereotypes women faced and also still face today.
The descriptions of her half-hearted then full-blown suicide attempts are painfully beautiful to read. It is when Esther has fully decided to end her life that a somehow poetic beauty is lifted from the page. Esther states that, after consuming the sleeping pills:
“At first nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down.
The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of my vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.”
While I could go as analytical into every word and phrase to extract its hidden nuances and specific meanings, I would rather focus on the beauty that flows freely from the sentences. Her apparent death is not seen as a tragedy in Esther’s mind, or at least not so far as these lines tell, rather it is a fitting end to a life that has become so ruined: a life that appears to have no promise of improvement or regeneration. It is an end, and a rather tame one at that, as if she has fallen asleep on a beach, with the tide lapping at her feet.
Suicide is dealt with in The Bell Jar not in hushed tones, but in explicit statements that it happens. People feel this way. People can outwardly appear fine and then are gone as quickly as their last breath.
I hope I have not spoiled too much of this book so I have ruined your possible enjoyment of it. Also I hope I have not done an injustice to The Bell Jar as it holds a particular personal resonance for me, something which I hardly expected it would so on reading the first few lines.
Plath has woven a beautifully constructed narrative half-told from her own life experiences, yet allows it to become applicable to more than just a few. Although a slow starter, it is certainly one of the few books that I have found leaving my more appreciative of the written word, more in tune with certain ideas, and seeing reflections of myself within and between the lines of this piece of prose.
Thank you for reading this book review. I apologise this didn’t come out last month as it was meant to, but I have been busy and just didn’t have the time. Please leave me comments on what you thought of this review and don’t forget to follow me her, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for reading.