Maddy Englert, April 3, 2014 (view all comments by Maddy Englert)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a well written novel that emphasizes the importance of freedom in life. By taking readers into a world where both mental and physical freedoms are at risk, this novel stresses freedom’s importance to individuals. The Bell Jar also emphasizes the chaos that can occur once freedom is taken away from an individual. The main character, Esther, experiences life while battling depression. However, this disease does not stop Plath from connecting readers to Esther. The ability to feel as though you are experiencing the disease right along with Esther is one of the most unique pieces that Plath was able to portray. This novel exceeded far beyond my expectations, and I believe it will satisfy any reader wanting to look at life through a different lens. Through Plath’s use of flashback and similes, she was able to create a fantastic novel that pulls readers right in, making them feel as though they are living through the same roller coaster of depression that Esther experiences.
When reading this novel, it is important to keep in mind the time period that it was written in. Published in 1971, the roles between women and men in society were different from what they are today. At this time, it was expected of women to be mothers and perform the domestic duties in life. Men however, had the freedom to choose what they wanted to do as long as they supported their family’s needs. These roles shaped Esther’s view on physical freedoms, without realizing the mental freedoms depression was taking away from her. “So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state”(69). This idea of having freedom taken away from Esther comes up multiple times throughout the novel, demonstrating the more powerful role men in society had at the time when this novel was written.
From start to finish, readers witness Esther’s major transformations caused by her depression. Unlike many novels where coming of age starts at the bottom and works its way to the top, this novel’s coming of age works like a roller coaster, traveling in ups and downs all the way through. Readers watch as Esther falls from a happy time without depression to the moment when she hits rock bottom. “Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep”(138). After Esther’s weakest moments, readers are then carried through her days on the road to recovery. “I had pretended I didn’t know why they were moving me from the hospital in my home town to a city hospital, to see what they would say”(143). While reading through this journey, the most remarkable aspect is how Plath is able to make the reader feel as though they are the main character. Plath’s use of flashbacks allow enough context for readers to infer what characters and events led Esther to depression. Plath’s use of similes also allows readers to compare their personal emotions to Esther’s depressed thoughts, allowing readers to experience Ether’s life with her. “I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone”(62). This simile allows readers to relate their feelings to Esther’s feelings and try to understand what Ether’s life would be like.
Personally, I feel that the author’s goal was to give readers the opportunity to live through a life with depression. With that goal in mind, Sylvia Plath accomplished it far above my expectations. I was amazed at Plath’s ability to allow me to relate to a character that was sick with depression so closely and understand what she was going through. Sylvia Plath was also successfully able to give readers enough background information through her use of flashback without explaining every detail that Esther had ever experienced. Readers were able to realize at what points Esther was either slowly falling or recovering from depression without having unrealistic major events that transformed her. This made the journey seem realistic to what a similar situation in life today would be like. By the great detail Plath provided in Esther’s personal thoughts and opinions, both her actions as well as her surroundings were convincing. When understanding the time that this novel was written, the concept of freedom and Esther’s constant fear of losing this freedom was understandable. This was successfully connected to Esther’s negative view on the majority of people and events in her life due to her sickness. Overall, I would highly recommend this novel to anyone in search of a novel that gives you a new perspective on life by taking you into a world where you live as though you are suffering from depression.
Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is a novel that questions the idea of freedom, both mental and physical. This idea of freedom is shown through the lack of physical freedoms Esther felt she had in the world, as well as the mental freedoms taken away from her due to her depression. Plath’s ability to successfully relate readers to Esther and her depression allows readers to understand the importance of freedom in life, as well as the problems that arise when this freedom is taken away.
Kayla Anderson, April 3, 2014 (view all comments by Kayla Anderson)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath follows the heart wrenching story of a young woman’s battle with depression. This novel is a must read as Plath’s use of characterization and symbolism bring the story to life. Overall, The Bell Jar is a timeless novel that comments on the idea of freedom through suffering.
Life for young women in the 1950s sets the stage for this emotional novel of one girls bouts with insanity and thoughts of suicide. Women in this time period were just coming around to having lives outside of the home, such as having careers, other than being secretaries and teachers. Along with the upcoming freedom women were beginning to experience, this novel is semi-autobiographical of the life of Sylvia Plath as well. The plot of The Bell Jar mirrors Plath’s own life events such as interning at a magazine in New York City, developing depression and attempting suicide. Overall, realizing that this novel details parts of Sylvia Plath’s own life helps the reader to understand that the thoughts of Esther Greenwood are, in fact, the thoughts of a mentally unstable person.
The characterization, symbols, and themes in The Bell Jar make this novel timeless. Esther Greenwood is the protagonist and narrator of the story. Since the novel is told from first person point of view the readers are able to be inside of Esther’s head and witness her slow mental deterioration. The characterization of Esther having low self confidence and believing that she had been “inadequate all along” (72), even though she comes from a normal family and has way above average grades, points out to the readers that depression can plague anyone. Furthermore, the descriptions Esther uses to explain why she wants to kill herself are chilling. Esther explains that “It was as if what [she] wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under [her] thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (142). Overall, she doesn’t want to die, but she wants to be rid of the part of her that is filled with this insanity. In addition, the symbolism helps with Esther’s characterization because she feels that she is trapped inside a bell jar, she is confined in an airless vacuum that she is unable to escape from. Esther’s peace only comes when “All the heat and fear had purged itself” (206) and “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above [her] head. [She] was open to the circulating air” (206). Even though Esther is freed from the bell jar she knows that it is still there waiting to descend and make “the world itself...a bad dream” (227) again. Esther has a constant battle with herself for freedom in The Bell Jar, this fight of freedom through suffering is the underlying theme that envelopes the entire novel. Plath continually comments on the fact that to be free in life, one must suffer first. However, Plath brings her novel to an uplifting ending as Esther’s suffering comes to an end and she is “perfectly free” (232).
All of these literary elements come together to make The Bell Jar an everlasting story. This novel is eternal because Esther is an ordinary young woman who is struck with depression at the height of her youth. Her story could be placed in any setting and any time period yet still achieve the same effects. Plath’s control of the literary elements of characterization and point of view pull the readers into the novel by allowing them to witness Esther’s downward spiral into the pits of insanity. In my opinion, The Bell Jar achieves its ultimate goal of revealing the horrifying truth that mental illness is not solely for the weak or disadvantaged, it can happen to anyone.
Altogether, Sylvia Plath has written a timeless novel that utilizes characterization and symbolism to comment on the theme that in order to reach freedom, one must suffer first. The Bell Jar is an ultimate must read because it is raw, chilling and realistic. Overall, the larger point that Plath is trying to comment on in The Bell Jar is the idea that insanity doesn’t prey on the deprived.
Ambrosia4All, June 17, 2009 (view all comments by Ambrosia4All)
I can absolutely say, this was my favorite book so far this year. I can't definitively say it was the best, but I loved it. This is in large part because of how well I connected to the material and Plath's beautiful, overwhelming descriptions of each event.
Plath has been one of my favorite poets for a long time - since I wrote a long report about her in the 7th grade. Her poetry moves me and makes me wish I could write some of my own that didn't sound ridiculous.
In the book, "the bell jar" refers to the feeling of suffocation that depression causes. This is one of the best descriptions I've ever heard, being the most accurate, in my experience. Yet I feel as if writing this must have been slightly cathartic for her. When I think how she went on to kill herself the month this was first published, it makes a strange sense to me.
On a purely literary level, Plath's writing moves me, as her poems have in the past. She has a dry sense of humor and ironic voice that, if misread, would probably sound strange, but read correctly amuses and entertains. Esther's reminisces on her time in New York are realistic and aptly prosaic.
Overall, I loved it and recommend it as a way to understand depression. Sometimes depression doesn't necessarily have an definitive basis, nor an easy fix like so many would like us to think.
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by Atlantic Monthly,
"An enchanting book. The author wears her scholarship with grace, and the amazing story she has to tell is recounted with humor and understanding."
by The New York Times Book Review,
"A fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems--the kind of book Salinger's Fanny might have written about herself ten years later, if she had spent those ten years in Hell."
"A special poignance...a special force, a humbling power, because it shows the vulnerability of people of hope and good will."
"By turns funny, harrowing, crude, ardent and artless. Its most notable quality is an astonishing immediacy, like a series of snapshots taken at high noon."
This extraordinary work--echoing Plath's own experiences as a rising writer/editor in the early 1950s--chronicles the nervous breakdown of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, successful, but slowly going under, and maybe for the last time.
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