, May 02, 2009
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.