“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel gives readers a harrowing insight into the mind of Esther, a clinically depressed poetess.

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath
Image by Anangsha Alammyan

A Book Review

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel gives readers a harrowing insight into the mind of Esther, a clinically depressed poetess.

This is a book that left me speechless.

Sylvia Plath’s genius for using simple words to paint a heartfelt, colorful picture never fails to leave me spellbound.

To be honest, I hadn’t read her poetry before; only a few random quotes on social media that made me feel Plath’s writing was raw and honest. I read this novel because it was gifted to me as part of a Secret Santa Book Exchange. My Santa (not so secret anymore) told me that based on the things I post online, I should love this book. And love it, I did, with all my heart.

In New York during the late 1940s, Esther, a talented and ambitious young poetess lives. She is young and full of dreams but never seems to fit in at any place with any person. She has grown up with the mindset that she needs to work hard — and that is something she does. All throughout college, she has done her best to collect small laurels (good grades, prizes in college competitions, the good impressions of her teachers) — only to realize later that they are meaningless in the real world. The protective bubble of college had made it seem as if these small achievements held some value, but life made her realize she was quite ill-equipped to face the challenges thrown at her.

The truth isn’t an easy one to digest. Curtly, Esther thinks to herself …

The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

As Esther grows into a young woman and starts seeing men, she feels like an outsider; the only one who forgot to read her lesson in a world that had already memorized all the rules of love by heart.

The idea of a woman that the world has built does not sit well with Esther. She cannot imagine how life would be if she were married and had children. She wants to be a poetess, a writer. She keeps thinking about how suffocating it would feel to be tied down with a husband and children. Though she yearns to feel maternal love, she is torn between thinking for herself and believing what the world told her was right.

When a boy she was seeing proposes marriage, he also tells her that after having children, she would feel differently, that she wouldn’t want to write poems any more. Esther is shocked at the hypocrisy of this remark and tells him of the dilemma that wrecks her heart. Her lover calls her “neurotic”, saying that if she is always so conflicted, she will never go far in life. Esther’s reply to this is

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.

Unable to decide a path for herself, Esther looks at the world as if it is a fig tree, its branches bending with ripe, juicy figs. These figs represent her chances, all the opportunities at having a better life. If she takes too long in choosing which fig to pick, all of them will fall at her feet, shrivelled and wasted.

“When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know.”
“Oh, sure you know,” the photographer said.
“She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be everything.”

Plodding on uncertainly through life, Esther believes that writing is her true calling — the only thing that will remain with her if all else is lost. But when her application to a writing workshop gets rejected, her belief system is shattered. This lack of self-confidence, combined with a failed relationship and a summer filled with uncertainties takes a toll on Esther’s mental health. Slowly, she slinks into a depression so all-consuming, it takes out all the light from her life.

She doesn’t feel sad, but empty, like a hollow shell. It is as if she is trapped inside a bell jar — a place that distorts her world-view and traps her inside, isolating her from everyone around her.

I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream. Because wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

Esther’s words are an accurate depiction of clinical depression — the all-pervading feeling of emptiness that lasts all day long and stays with the person irrespective of which places they visit or what laurels they earn.

Plath’s beautiful writing made me wish I could delve into the depths of the pages, give Esther a hug, and tell her to hold on. That even though things are dark now, sooner or later, they would fall into place like they were always meant to.

The rest of the book is the story of Esther’s battle with depression: the lessons she learns, the toll it takes on her family, and the friends she makes (and loses) along the way. The ending is bittersweet. Plath finishes off on a positive note, leaving what happens to Esther after her release from the mental asylum open to the reader’s interpretation. One can only hope that Esther did survive after her release, that she did not again find herself lost in the vice-like grip of the bell jar.

Sadly, real life, unlike Esther’s world, does not always have a happy ending. We know how Sylvia Plath’s life ended — dead at barely 31, with her head inside an oven, her little children crying in the adjacent room.

What a terrible loss of the world of literature. What a terrible loss of humanity.

I found myself in the words of Sylvia Plath. This novel is relatable. It is heartbreaking. It is beautiful. It is truly a masterpiece.

More than anything, it is a story of how, contrary to popular beliefs, having depression does not mean a person is weak-willed. Depression is a mental illness, and like all other illnesses of the human body, proper medication and treatment can cure it.

Read this book if you have ever felt like you are alone and no one understands you. Read this if you have ever felt empty in spite of your successes. Read this if you have struggled with insomnia and felt too afraid to share it with a friend.

But most importantly, read this because it has one of the best, most unabashed display of raw honesty in fiction. No lover of literature should miss out on the treat that is Sylvia Plath’s writing.

I am going to scrounge through the shelves of every library and bookstore till I find a copy of Sylvia Plath’s poetry collection, “Ariel”. Till then, let me revel in the afterglow of this heartfelt, heart-rending book.

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