Should You Read The Bell Jar? Why or Why Not? *minor spoiler alerts*

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“Powells – The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath” by Photos by Portland_Mike is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Pia Sharma

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was written in 1961 and published in 1963 which is ironically the same year that Plath committed suicide at the age of 30. Before I delve into the plot of The Bell Jar, it is important to note that the content of this book includes mental illness, chastity, sex, self harm, suicide and other topics  that might be trigering for some audiences. I believe it is very important that readers should consider this before choosing to fully experience Plath’s haunting post modernist classic.

Now that reader’s discretion is advised, one could justifiably praise Plath’s method of discussing hotly debated and controversial topics with such ease, fluidity, and progressivity which can all be attributed to how the speaker and protagonist of the novel, Esther Greenwood, directly mirrors Sylvia Plath and one of the possible, infinite paths her life could have taken. In fact, Plath had first published her novel under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ because the characters represented the people in Plath’s life so vividly that both she and her publisher worried her friends and family would find out and sue her if her identity was revealed.

 One would more accurately praise Plath instead for openly discussing these taboo points of discussion knowing that many would be opposed to her doing so (ex: the novel was banned in Indiana for rejecting the role of a woman becoming a mother). The Bell Jar begins in New York City where Esther lives among her fellow college students in an all-women’s hotel. As an aspiring writer, she experiences feelings many students might be able to relate to now: exhaustion and debilitation which stemmed from her constant hard work, living from assignment to assignment, writing contest to contest, and application to application. She had begun to burnout when she returned to her mother’s home in the suburbs of Boston where she was rejected from a prestigious writing class in which she had planned to enroll. After hearing this news, Esther finds herself unable to sleep, read, and practice good hygiene. Her mother takes her to a psychiatrist which is when the reader begins to watch the seemingly picture perfect life of a young writer in New York fall down a rabbit hole of her own insanity and mental instability. 

Sylvia’s prose has a delicate and necessary balance of dialogue and Esther’s internal thought. When dealing with an emotionally loaded piece such as this, third person omniscient narration would have distanced the relationship between the reader and the speaker. The reader is only able to gain a strong sense of familiarity with the “dark and harrowing corners of the psyche” as if Esther’s was their own because the author wrote as though she was experiencing Esther’s life moment by moment. 

Esther had been encased in a bell jar for medical reasons, however, even after it was lifted, Plath used the jar as a metaphor for Esther’s depression. Esther explained how the bell jar was more of a periodic mental confinement than a consistent physical one. Even when Esther was free of the jar, she would live trapped in the mental confines of her depression for the rest of her life. After acknowledging this metaphor, one might assume that this book was a call for help or a foreshadow of Plath’s own suicide. Sylvia and Esther lived similar lives; both hard working, young college students, and talented writers. However, Sylvia ended up writing and publishing her work and Esther ended up in a depressive spiral. The irony of Plath’s work is that when Esther periodically overcame the depressive confinement of her figurative bell jar after her debilitating burnout, she became stronger and healthier, however, Sylvia ignoring the figurative bell jar that confined her in her private life is what ended up being her achilles’ heel. This novel is important to Sylvia’s career and legacy because it was clearly a coping mechanism she used to express how she felt in a time where such vulnerable expression wasn’t openly accepted in the way it might be today.

Overall, I would most likely recommend this book to those who are looking for, or open to, reading a novel reflecting psychological literary realism. The Bell Jar was definitely ahead of it’s time and teaches the readers to not only sympathize but experience the inner workings of Esther Greenwood’s mind and the importance of mental health.