Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Bell Jar

I have had this book on my shelf for a number of years. I bought it the first time I heard it mentioned and thought it would be a fascinating read. I knew, however, that this is not the sort of book to pick up and read on the fly. This is a book that I must mentally prepare to read well in advance of actually reading it. I read the book about 3 weeks ago, but apparently it is also a book that I must prepare to write a review.

For those who are unfamiliar with the storyline - this is a semi-autobiographical story of Sylvia Plath's experiences with depression, mental illness and for a period of time, constant thoughts of suicide. This is made even more somber by the fact that Ms. Plath committed suicide in February, 1963, one month after the publication of the book.

The story centers around Esther Greenwood, an intelligent young girl from a small town outside Boston. Esther does not come from money, but she has entered and won many scholarships in the hopes of obtaining a degree from Smith College and eventually becoming a writer. The story opens in New York City where Esther and 11 other scholarship recipients are interning for a major fashion magazine. While Esther seems content with the job and her future career prospects, she somehow never seems to fit in socially. While this creates awkward social settings in New York, Esther is able to weather these situations by focusing on a summer workshop for which she is "certain" to be accepted. When she is denied entrance into this prestigious course, her ability to cope with life slowly deteriorates.

This haunting narrative is made even more disturbing by the fact that it is told in 1st person Point Of View. While the fictional character is Esther, the reader recognizes the autobiographical nature of the story and becomes quite intimate with her experiences. We are brought into the mental institution and see first hand the other "inmates" of this asylum. We are aware that someone with a mental illness is still cognizant of her surroundings. We join Esther as she walks through the corridor to the procedural room where she undergoes electric shock therapy (and we DO feel the pain of the electricity as it pulsates through her body). We experience the feelings of depression when we realize that the pain does not produce desired results.

The story itself, while taking us to the depths of despair, ends on a hopeful note. Esther is released from the institution and appears in good mental and physical health. She returns to Smith College - graduates - and begins a new life as a writer. It appears that recovery has taken place and all is right with the world.

However, the reader knows the true end to this story, and it is not a happy one. While Sylvia Plath became a published author - her poetry receiving great accolades within the literary world - she still seemed to struggle with fitting in. Ms. Plath was a perfectionist and writing, while necessary to her being, was a certainly a mixed blessing(at some point the revisions must stop - but where is that magical point?). She married and had children, and yet happiness in marriage also seemed to elude her. In the end, she apparently thought that her life was not worth living.

I find it hard to separate a review of the book from a review of her life -- and that is not fair to Ms Plath. The book is well-written. It grabs the reader's attention from the start and does not let it go until the last paragraph. The characters are well-defined because they are intimately known by the author. The bird's eye view of mental illness (and the ways in which we treated mental illness in the 1950s) is fascinating. While I have been blessed with good mental health, I would hope that our treatment of these issues have progressed in the past 50+ years. I would hope that our treatment includes compassion, behavior modification skills, appropriate medicinal prescriptions, and plenty of individual/group counseling. The conclusion to the story leaves the reader with a feeling of hope that recovery is possible and lifetime dreams can be achieved.

I think it is my Christian perspective that leaves me anguished by the ending of her true life story. Here is a woman who had so much to offer the world - and she had two children who were totally dependent upon her. Yet, she saw no other way to cope with life than to end it. I believe that no matter how horrible or depressing life is on this Earth, we have a solid Hope in Christ Jesus. I am so very saddened that she was not aware of this kind of hope.

My thoughts turn to her children. I have often wondered how children internalize the suicide of a parent. It would seem to me that the magical thinking of children would question why the parent wanted to leave them? Were they not good enough to entice the parent to stay? Did the parent not love them enough? If they had only done (fill in the blank) then the parent would have decided to live rather than to die. It would seem to me that this could have devastating, rippling effects on her descendants.

Unfortunately, in this case, it did. On March 16, 2009, Sylvia Plath's son, who was only 1 at the time of his mother's death, committed suicide. He had never married, nor had children. He did suffer from depression and apparently could see no other alternative but to end his own life.

Is this book worth reading? YES! If for no other reason than to make us aware of mental illness and give us a heart of compassion toward those who suffer from it. I may not know how to properly help those who are clinically depressed, but I can soften my heart to be more accepting and understanding of those who are afflicted by it. Our love and compassion expressed to others is one way that we can bring Christ to a world which is desperately searching for hope.


  1. This is a great review, Molly! The Bell Jar has been on my shelf for years. I really should make time to read it!

  2. Beautiful review, Molly. You went beyond the printed page and saw the subject's effect in real life. How sad when a person sees no hope or anything positive to live for.

  3. This book does seem like one that would give me an uneasy feeling as I read it. Your review is fantastic and has made me think I should read the book sometime.

  4. I would definitely have to "gear up" to read this book too. How sad to hear that not only did Sylvia end her life, but now her son has too. It really makes you think of how are action affect our children.

  5. We read this one for my book group a good five years ago and let's just say that it did not go over well with them.

    In Plath's defense, my book group has gotten better but they have a hard time reading anything that is overly dark or depressing. I recall liking it and felt that it gave us a lot to talk about.

  6. I read the book in late 1960s and I remember it was quite powerful. Worth reading too in the context of what life was like for many women in the past -- few choices, little chance for independence, and so on.

  7. We read this in high school-can you believe it? I don't remember much except that I didn't like it much-my over riding memory is the darkness.

    It is so sad how mental illness and depression is still viewed today in our society. It is an illness as very real as cancer or diabetes, yet there is such stigma still attached to it-which I feel keeps people from getting the help they need and want.

    Great review, as usual, Molly!

  8. I've read this a couple of times, and it's a great book. I think Sylvia Plath's personal experiences with mental illness make it authentic. She was a fascinating woman, and I wonder what more she would have accomplished had she lived.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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