Shawnda, May 2, 2009 (view all comments by Shawnda)
Imagine yourself, caught up in a whirlwind of overwhelming emotions and anxieties, watching the world pass you by and not being able to escape the bell jar you are sealed in. Unable to shake these feelings, you are slowly suffocating, waiting for the jar to be opened, releasing you into a new and transformed atmosphere. This series of events is developed in Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. It is a depiction of a young woman’s descent into a crippling depression, attempted suicide, and eventual rebirth. Plath created a gripping novel that leaves the reader questioning, despite its lack of psychological detail.
Plath created an autobiographical novel in which Esther Greenwood is a mere depiction of herself. The events within the story are loosely disguised and mirror the major events in Plath’s own life. The Bell Jar was published in the 1950’s, at a time when the ideas in the book were seen as extremely controversial. Plath addressed issues ranging from women’s roles in relationships and society, sexuality, depression, and suicide. She tied all of these subjects into one tragic and dark story about a young woman’s battle with life and mortality.
The novel takes off in New York, where Esther is one of twelve women who received a month-long internship for a fashion magazine in the city. An overachiever, Esther worked exceedingly more than her peers, balancing college, the internship, and honors classes on her agenda. As the pressures of her work and her swelling insecurities began to heighten, Esther sank deeper into an unfamiliar slump. Soon, overwhelmed with emotions and inadequacy, Esther became less aware of who she was, where she was going, and if she even wanted to go wherever that was. Trying to find her identity and desires, Esther descended even farther into her anxiety and apathy.
As all this was happening, Esther was informed that she was denied admissions into a summer writing program at her college. Returning home, Esther found herself without work, and in turn without much purpose. She soon began to stay in bed all day, and did little to address her newfound depression. After receiving inadequate care and a botched shock treatment, her thoughts about suicide increased, and led to several attempts. She tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists in the bath tub, but only got as far as cutting her knee as a test. She also contemplated hanging, but concluded that the ceilings in her house were insufficient. Finally she decided on overdosing on pills, and hid herself in the basement of her house.
Esther was found by her brother several days later, and was sent to a local hospital. She was then sent to a private asylum where she was to recover. After a prolonged time in treatment, Esther began to emerge from the bell jar keeping her masked from reality, and her recovery was her rebirth into the world.
Overall, Plath addressed many controversial issues and followed an accurate description of one’s battle with depression. My main disappointment lies in the detail Plath decided to use describing Esther’s emotions. I had expected the book to have many more psychological undertones, addressing the causes of Esther’s depression and describing her therapeutic process. The only possible hint at the source of Esther’s depression was her father’s death. When Esther visited his grave, she explained “I saw my father’s gravestone…I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard. Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death” (167). Immediately after this, Esther concluded her final attempt of suicide. It is possible that Esther had many other situations similar to this, in which she never confronted the issue. Still, there was little remaining evidence of what drove her to such drastic measures. I guess what I was expecting was a Freudian influenced novel full of psychological evaluations and analyses, which is rather unrealistic. Upon further thought, I have come to appreciate the novel as a whole.
Thinking back at what Plath was facing at the time she published her novel, I realize she had a great amount of courage and ability. You come to acknowledge her straight forward style and the realism she implements in her writing. The book brought up several crucial arguments; whether or not a woman had a choice over her sexuality, if she would marry, and her career. Also, there was even less literature addressing gender roles along with depression and suicide. The issues she brings up motivate the reader to question their own beliefs and preconceived ideas. Even today these subjects are prevalent and multi-faceted. Throughout the novel, you are connecting the events to your own life, your ideas about mortality, and current issues in society. Esther is such an ordinary person, it makes you wonder if you could take her spot and be trapped in a bell jar of your own. Today, it brings up even more pressing questions. The fact that some readers are not even fazed by the serious topic of suicide is controversial in itself. It poses the concern that maybe we are so desensitized to violence and grim subjects because of daily overexposure to them.
Along with these matters and Plath’s style of writing, the reader is constantly thinking and drawing out connections. There are metaphors throughout the novel that are so cleverly drawn out, the most significant being the bell jar. Plath takes an ordinary object, something that anyone can see every day, and turns it into a manifestation of Esther’s depression, breakdown, and recovery. Something so simple can have so many meanings. To Esther, the bell jar was her deprivation. She was trapped behind the glass, unable to interject, and watched the world as it passed her by. Slowly, she retreated further and further into its shadow while the air began to run out. As soon as she began to improve, the jar began to turn itself over. Soon she explained “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air” (215). This jar had such a profound effect on her life, and still loomed over her head with a pending possibility of return. The implementation of this symbol leaves the reader wondering if what they see everyday is really what it seems. Are the ordinary and mundane actually the dying and broken-down?
These questions present themselves throughout the novel. First impressions are often broken, and upon further thought you come to appreciate Plath’s style of writing and the messages she was trying to incorporate into Esther’s story. I have always believed that a good novel leaves the reader questioning and forming conclusions of her own, and this book accomplishes that.
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condonv, May 1, 2009 (view all comments by condonv)
Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar displays a profound understanding of the fall into deep medical depression and the drastic, rapid mental decline experienced as Esther Greenwood lives in her own bell jar of suicidal thoughts. Her fierce writing style and psychological understanding of the complex emotions individuals feel when they are apart of this level of deterioration leaves her audience in awe.
Plath’s comprehension of this mental struggle is reflective of her own psyche. This novel is a representation of her daily battle with suicidal demons. On February 11, 1963, in her British home, Plath killed herself by allowing gas to suffocate her. Before her untimely death, and still today, she is viewed as an outstanding poet. Before The Bell Jar was written, Plath’s major works were the collections of poems, The Colosssus and Ariel. These poems even awarded her the honor of being told these poems were worthy of a Pulitzer by the popular critic A. Alvarez. Plath’s work in The Bell Jar also earned ravings (and criticisms as well) for her themes and unique style.
This novel arises the enveloping theme of obsession. The beginning of the work allows Esther Greenwood to characterize her life through the lens of herself and society by her expectance “to be the envy of thousands of other college girls”(2). Yet within her supposed-to-be world, she felt “very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”(3). This sensation of emptiness drives her into denial over her obsession with Buddy Willard and the upfront obsession with death. The repetition of Willard’s affair leads to an obsession with Greenwood’s own virginity and her feeling of inadequacy. In turn, this sensation of inadequacy creates her longing for death.
Plath’s vivid elaboration of Greenwood’s suicidal mentality allows an outstanding description of the ability to sharply turn into clinical depression. Her pointed diction stabs as Greenwood depicts the bluntness of death. This painful view of ending is witnessed as she describes the eastern samurai’s tradition of seppuku. Her diction of the passage:
“they disemboweled themselves when anything went wrong…before they had time to think twice, they would jab the knives in and zip them round, one on the upper crescent and one on the lower crescent, making a full circle. Then their stomach skin would come loose, and they would die”(138)
allows fluid visualization of the painful death. These descriptions within the novel allow the readers to be transported into the character’s mind and view the obsession of death that plagues the clinically depressed’ minds. The syntax of run-on sentences displays the rapid thought process and excitement of the pleasures of suicide. Because there is no break in the sentence, as it is read there is one long thought without a sufficient pause. This is then followed by an abrupt truth, such as “it would take two motions”(147) after Greenwood describes her developed plan for cutting her wrists. The simplicity of the fact reflects the simplicity of the idea in the suicidal perspective. This brilliant technique to gain understanding is one that sets this novel apart from others.
The Bell Jar is a work that will be preserved through time. Plath’s developed themes through the novel are the world’s constant. It is transports the thought process of the struggling individual to those who may not fully comprehend the challenges and will continue to do so for eons to come.
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KatieEW27, May 1, 2009 (view all comments by KatieEW27)
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”(237). Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar captivates readers with the story of a young woman’s unexpected spiral into depression. Esther Greenwood falls apart when she seems to have the whole world at her fingertips. The purpose of this work is to demonstrate the unexpectedness of psychological disorders and to prove they can affect even the most privileged people. Everyone can appreciate this work, but women may find it more intriguing as it comes from a female’s perspective and one of the triggers for her downfall is the relationships with and the expectations of men. Overall, this is a fascinating novel, but leaves the reader with unanswered questions.
The novel opens with Esther in New York City. “We had all won a fashion magazine contest by writing essays and stories and poems and fashion blurbs, and as prizes they gave us jobs in New York, expenses paid, and piles and piles of free bonuses”(3). As she seems to be living a fabulous life of a young socialite, moments of unhappiness are revealed. After talking to her boss one day she states, “I felt very low… and I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer”(29). She has multiple flashbacks about her “boyfriend” Buddy Willard and other men she encountered. While recalling Buddy she thinks, “I discovered quite by accident what an awful hypocrite he was, and now he wanted me to marry him and I hated his guts”(52). Her breakdown begins in New York but intensifies as she comes back home to the Boston suburbs for the summer. She is taken to an unfeeling and traumatizing psychiatrist where her depression only worsens. She is then sent to another psychiatric hospital where she is under the care of a kind female doctor, Dr, Nolan. Even with the loving understanding of the new doctor, Esther still feels like she is trapped, watching the world instead of joining it. “The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn’t stir”(186). Throughout the novel she has flashbacks of Buddy, her family, and other instances that occurred during her life. These memories reveal some possible reasons for her psychological breakdown. The events that happen to Esther define the themes of the work.
The themes of this novel are particularly important because they are the reasons for Esther Greenwood’s depression. The major themes of this novel are the pressure of expectations of others, particularly pressures put upon women, and undefined depression. There was pressure put on Esther, a lot of it coming from herself, to be successful in school, to get the best grades, and to take the hardest courses. There was also a contrasting pressure to give it all up to become a wife and mother. At one point, she is talking to Buddy about how she did not want to have to choose just one thing, and he then calls her neurotic for her desire. She responds with, “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time then I’m neurotic as hell!”(94). She hated the double standard between men and women and was upset by the tendencies of men to do whatever they pleased while she was expected to remain pure until marriage. “Now I saw he had only been pretending all this time to be so innocent”(70). All of these expectations and pressures built up until she fell into a deep depression. This depression is undefined because there is no one singular event that triggers it. Her downfall is almost casual and it is only by looking into her past that some events could be seen as causes, such as the death of her father or her unpleasant experiences with men. Back home in Boston, she comes to a realization about her father’s passing. “Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death”(167). This adds to her already broken emotional state. Here was a girl that seemed to have everything, but was unhappy because she could not escape her past and was unsure about reality. These powerful themes create an extremely intriguing work.
Overall, this novel is very interesting. The nonchalant way she slips into depression is striking and addicting. This story is relatable because many people have been overwhelmed by pressures and expectations at some point in their lives. At one point she thinks about moving to Chicago and changing her name to shake her judgmental surroundings. “Nobody would know I had thrown up a scholarship at a big eastern women’s college and mucked up a month in New York and refused a perfectly solid medical student for a husband”(132). This is just one incident where it is obvious the pressure of expectations becomes overwhelming. However, this work can be hard to follow because the timeline jumps around a lot, and there are pieces of time that are missing altogether. The flashbacks reveal a lot of necessary background information, but can be confusing as to when they occurred. For example, Esther talks about how much she hates Buddy Willard, but then she is visiting him at his college.“I had kept begging Buddy to show me some really interesting hospital sights, so one Friday I cut all my classes and came down for a long weekend and he gave me the works”(63). The one drawback is that the ending leaves the reader wanting more. There are multiple questions raised in the final pages but there are no real answers. This novel suggests that psychological disorders can happen to anyone, even those with seemingly endless opportunities. The author’s use of a sympathetic tone throughout the text makes Esther seem not as crazy as her ideas are almost rationalized because the reader can see the pain she has experienced.
The idea of undefined depression that Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar exhibits is fascinating because a young woman with so much going for her completely breaks down. Though the book is at points confusing, it keeps the reader interested. The only disappointing part is the unfinished ending, but it should not stop someone from reading this profound work.
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Zing6060, May 1, 2009 (view all comments by Zing6060)
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, is a fictional novel about a young woman, Esther Greenwood, and her struggle as she develops and works through depression. The best audience for this book would be teenagers and older, especially people who have friends or family that suffer from depression. The Bell Jar teaches some important values and lessons that children would not be able to fully grasp. This novel takes readers into the depth of a depressed mind. Readers will learn how depression develops and the struggles of overcoming it. They will also learn a valuable lesson: no one ever knows exactly what people around them are going through.
Plath’s novel is seen by some as an autobiography. Many of the events in the novel follow Plath’s experiences. She first published the book under a pen name for two reasons. The first is that she did not believe it to be of literary value and the second is because she did not want to cause those who were close to her that she included in her novel any pain. She even told a friend at one point that she thought of The Bell Jar “as an autobiographical apprentice work which [she] had to write in order to free [herself] from the past.” Esther undergoes many different treatments for depression, such as electroshock therapy, that Plath also was treated with and both were hospitalized for psychotherapy. During Plath’s struggle she wrote: “A time of darkness, despair, disillusion--...--symbolic death, and numb shock--then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration.” The darkness, numb shock, and slow rebirth are all seen in Esther’s journey. The setting is also similar. Plath grew up in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts and had an internship for a month in New York City just like her character Esther. The similarities between Esther and Plath show readers that Plath knows from firsthand experience how depression affects a person and Esther’s experience becomes more than just fiction.
Esther Greenwood is a nineteen year old woman who has taken an internship in New York for a month. While in New York, she develops many signs of depression. She strays from planned outings and hides herself in her hotel room for hours on end. Once the internship ends and she heads back home to live with her mother, her signs of depression explode as she locks herself in her house for weeks. Deciding that showers are pointless because the next day she will only be dirty again, Esther stays in her house without even changing her clothes. She cannot sleep and when the family doctor, who has been prescribing Esther sleeping pills, thinks a problem may be occurring, she refers Esther to a psychiatrist. By the time she sees the psychiatrist, she has not slept in seven days nor changed her clothes or showered for three weeks. The psychiatrist believes Esther needs more than just counseling and refers the Greenwoods to his hospital for shock treatment. Here is when Esther’s struggle against depression really complicates. She undergoes shock treatments and sees many doctors before the end of the novel. The end of The Bell Jar leaves the reader off with a question more than an answer the every reader needs to answer for themself.
After learning some of Plath’s background and a general outline of the novel, it is obvious that Plath used her personal experiences to shape the novel. By using these experiences, the novel becomes more genuine and less fictional. The two lessons that it teaches--what depression is really like and you never know what other people are going through--become more realistic because of this real life connection. The novel shows exactly how depression affects people. Every case is different, but the stereotype of being sad all the time is not accurate. Through this novel, readers can see that depression affects people before they even realize something is different. By using a stream of consciousness narration, Plath is able to show readers what happens mentally to people who are developing depression. Unless one has had depression before, he would not know the process. Many people believe they know what depression is like but most times they are wrong. Trying to comfort friends and family with depression can be very hard when you don’t know how they feel. This novel helps understand what depressed people are feeling and shows the true effort that it takes to conquer it. By reading this novel, one is able to better know how people with depression feel and may be better able to comfort them.
The other lesson learned from this novel is that people have troubles that no one else can see. The first half of Plath’s novel, when Esther is in New York, establishes this idea. The other interns had no idea that Esther had depression. Going to work or school every day, we see people who may be struggling just as much as Plath and Esther struggled but we will never know. After reading this novel, I don’t see the people around me the same. Plath has made me think about the fact that there is so much more to all the people I’m around than what I see every day and it’s a lesson I believe everyone should learn.
The Bell Jar is an amazing novel that teaches people the truth about depression and to look at more than just the actions of the people around you. Whether you know someone going through depression or not, this novel will help you understand what so many people in this world go through and I highly recommend you get a hold of a copy!
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taylor18, May 1, 2009 (view all comments by taylor18)
A Haunting Reality within The Bell Jar
Few novels paint a disturbingly clear reality of depression and madness, yet Sylvia Plath achieves this perception and more in her work, The Bell Jar. With a relatable voice and a reasonable tone, Plath describes the fall of Esther Greenwood. The author also discusses the consequences of not knowing what one wants, and the experiences of a trapped, psychologically unstable young woman. Readers will be drawn in by these features, and will finish the novel with a feeling of awe and a better understanding of the questions that lurk in the back of their own minds.
The novel opens with the introduction of Esther Greenwood, a girl who has won a scholarship to live and work in New York City with twelve other young women. In the city, Esther attends parties, works as a junior editor, and meets men, but still feels “very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (2). While in New York, the protagonist also describes her many desires for the future and her past endeavors with a college sweetheart, thus revealing a major source of her depression. The final blow to Esther’s psyche comes when she loses a prestigious writer’s scholarship. Esther’s plans for the future dissipate as madness and thoughts of suicide take the place of hope. Nevertheless, the strain on Esther ultimately culminates into one last desperate act.
Even throughout Esther’s depression, the voice retains mature and educated qualities, while the tone remains nonchalant and almost analytical. Esther uses sensible descriptions for the readers, yet gives insight into what occurs in the novel. For example: “We fell into one of those yellow checkered cabs that are always waiting at the curb when you are trying to decide whether or not you want a taxi, and by the time we had reached the hotel I had puked once and Betsy had puked twice” (43). Words such as “puked” and the description of the cabs are common phrases that readers would use. Thus, Esther illustrates the scene, but avoids high diction to seem relatable. Along with voice, Plath creates an incredibly analytical or unfeeling tone. While in New York, Esther explains, “I just bumped from my hotel to work to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react” (3). This feeling pervades the novel, and unexpectedly continues as Esther discusses her plans to kill herself. “Soon it [the car] would cross one of the brief bridges that arched the Charles, and I would, without thinking, open the door and plunge out through the stream of traffic to the rail of the bridge. One jump, and the water would be over my head” (184). The audience expects hysteria to accompany the idea of dying, not rationality. The surprisingly rational tone and relatable voice haunt the readers, and highlight the themes of the novel.
Through Esther’s tale, readers quickly realize that the novel focuses on the danger of indecision, and demonstrates the psyche’s mental trap. Esther quickly sums her feelings in a description of a fig tree: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree… From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black” (77). Esther’s indecision is built in part by her fear of being trapped within one lifestyle, marriage, or profession. In turn, Esther’s indecision traps her within a state of limbo, and within the “glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air” (185). The idea of feeling trapped and the idea of maddening indecision continue throughout the book to create a vivid, realistic image of the protagonist’s struggles.
In addition to the well-developed tone and ideas, Plath keeps the development of ideas succinct and focused, thus allowing readers to believe that Plath achieves her goal for the book. Plath does not stray from her themes, and readers will not get the feeling that any part of the book does not belong. Moreover, the author does not overdefine her ideas to the point of redundancy. Plath simply uses a variety of different events in the protagonist’s life to convey the themes. For example, the idea of feeling trapped is built by expressing Esther’s fear of limiting jobs, relationships, or lifestyles. The different fears are relevant and original to the complete idea. Because Plath does not stray from her main points, readers will assume that Plath was pleased with the outcome of the novel, and that she achieved her goal for the book.
Due to the succinctly developed ideas of confinement and indecision, the surprisingly analytical tone and mature voice, and haunting experiences of Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath creates a powerful work to which readers can relate. Plath also reaches a prestigious level of work: she remains one of the few authors who can clearly and realistically illustrate depression and madness. In the end, Plath’s The Bell Jar provides a darkly fascinating read for a universal audience.
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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.
The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther's breakdown with such intensity that Esther's insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.
This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
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