Mini classic review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

We follow Esther Greenwood’s personal life from her summer job in New York with Ladies’ Day magazine, back through her days at New England’s largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tyre: “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road” … Esther Greenwood’s account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

There are some books that feel impossible to review, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is definitely one of them. It’s a hard book to read, primarily due to the raw descriptions of depression and realities of being a woman struggling with mental health in the 1950s.

In many ways, The Bell Jar is a very powerful book about a young woman trying to become a successful writer but instead grapples with severe mental health issues, culminating in her seeking treatment in an institution and undertaking electric shock therapy. It’s devastating to read how quickly Esther loses control of everything: her job, her friends, her life. It’s even more heartbreaking to learn how much of this book was inspired by Plath’s own feelings and personal history.

Plath’s prose was also beautiful and compelling, in a dark sort of way. I would label this book as required reading at some stage of your life, but I have to admit I’m glad I didn’t read it when I was younger. I just think I’d connect too much to Esther’s deep sadness and the book would hurt in a completely different way.

However, this book is far from perfect and it would be remiss of me not to mention how racist it was at times, and the explicit homophobia as well. Many people may claim ‘but that was what it was like during those times!’, but Plath was actually a very progressive writer in her time — and this book was doubly considered the same. Just a strange observation on my part.

Overall, The Bell Jar is an uncomfortable read as it’s so deeply personal and real, and Esther is perhaps one of the most realistic characters I’ve read in fiction.


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