The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Reading The Bell Jar raised a lot of mixed emotions for me. The novel is superb, and yet while reading it I felt somewhat guilty. I kept telling myself I shouldn’t enjoy a novel or marvel over her beautiful images knowing the outcome of Sylvia Plath’s life.

For those unfamiliar with Plath, here’s a brief introduction to the American writer. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932 and studied at Smith College. From an early age, she showed much promise as a writer and as a poet. She shined in college and edited The Smith Review. During her third year of college she won a prestigious award allowing her to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. This allowed her to live in New York City for a month and she had the opportunity to meet many famous writers and poets. Plath had her whole life ahead of her and she was forging ahead. Yet, something wasn’t right. Even with all of her successes, she could not overcome one obstacle. Plath suffered from depression. In 1953, she tried to kill herself for the first time. She was hospitalized and received psychiatric treatment for half a year. Afterwards she graduated from Smith College with honors.

Plath’s successes continued and she received a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College in Cambridge, England. In 1956, Plath married Ted Hughes, an English poet. The couple had a daughter in 1960. Plath’s second pregnancy ended in miscarriage. In 1961, she published The Bell Jar, her first and only novel.  In January 1962, they had their first son. During the summer of 1962, Plath and Hughes separated after she found out he had been having an affair. In October of 1962, Plath felt an explosion of creativity and completed many of the poems. And her depression returned. In February of 1963, Plath stuck her head in an oven after securing the rooms where her children slept so they would not be harmed. She was discovered on the morning of February 11, 1963. In 2009, Nicholas Hughes, Plath’s son, killed himself.

Her novel, which is semi-autobiographical, is a gripping account of how a young woman, Esther Greenwood, who from the outside looks like she has it all: beauty, intelligence, talent, and success, but is struggling to hold her life together. Through the use of flashbacks, Plath shows the reader just how debilitating depression is. Her descriptions pulled me into the story. Even though Esther is undergoing treatment, she comes across as completely rational. Of course her actions aren’t rational when you really stop to think about it. If you haven’t read it, you may think this is hard to fathom. How could I as a reader who knows the actual outcome of Plath’s life feel that the character in her book is rational? All I can say is, she has such a way of explaining how her main character thinks about every situation you can understand why she is acting the way she does. I’m not saying I was cheering Esther on in her suicide attempts. But I felt her pain. I saw just how her depression sucked her further and further into a darkness that seemed hopeless and almost comforting. If you’ve ever wanted to understand how painful and powerful depression can be, read this novel. My heart goes out to anyone and their loved ones who have to battle this disorder. I’ve always known that it wasn’t easy. After reading this, I’ve realized just how dreadful it is.

This novel is on my 1001 books you should read. I do recommend it, however, I don’t know if everyone will enjoy it. I don’t suggest taking this novel on a holiday for light reading.

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American living in England. When she isn’t writing, she’s traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs, or reading. Not necessarily in that order.
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18 Responses to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. janeisawake says:

    The Bell Jar is one of those life changing books. After I read it felt humbled, as if I was let in on the secret of Plaths life. I was aware of the tragic story of her real life, as I studied the novel at uni. However, that was before 2009 and wasn’t aware of the death of her son. What a sad story 😦

    • TBM says:

      I remembered hearing about her son’s death and you just have to feel for the family. Depression is such a horrible illness. and you are right, this is a life changing book. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to write this novel. To reopen old wounds. And her honesty is astounding.

  2. jmgoyder says:

    This book had exactly the same effect on me!

  3. Excellent review TBM! Never having read this book, it was enlightening to have the background on Plath before you outlined the plot. Depression is such a devastating disease. I mean, we have all had “down” days or even weeks in our lives, but to live 24/7 for your entire life in such dark despair is unimaginable. I wonder what the stats are for depression in creative people because it seems to me that some of the most talented writers, artists, etc. in history have suffered from depression or another mental disorder. This book sounds very interesting, and I will have to add it to my TBR list.

    • TBM says:

      When I was writing this review I tried to think of all the artists who did or tried to commit suicide–too many came to mind. It’s amazing. good thing I’m not brilliant so I don’t have to worry about this. I mean I have my down days like you mentioned, but nothing compared to her story. And thank goodness.

  4. I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath. Love her poetry. An additional intriguing element of the Plath story is that her husband, Ted Hughes, then married his mistress, who later killed their young daughter and committed suicide. What was it about this man that drove women to kill themselves?

    • TBM says:

      Oh I didn’t know that part of the story. Goodness, I’m glad I never met the man. Now I need to find a biography on him to learn more. What a tragic life for him and the women he loved.

      • ilargia64 says:

        Wow…It is incredible to see how, sometimes, there is an invisible thread that pulls you deep and deep, around and around, and involves certain people in the spiral….All of them not only victims of themselves, but of a general terrible fate…

  5. Caroline says:

    I read this when I was 16 and it was one of the most important books for me. I loved it. I bought her diaris recently and they contain such beautiful passages.
    If you haven’t seen the movie with Gwyneth Platrow you should watch it. It’s one hell of a performance.
    Like Claire Danes in Homeland btw. Stellar.

    • TBM says:

      Thanks for the suggestion Caroline. I just added the movie to my queue. I’m a huge fan of Paltrow and I would like to learn more about Plath. She had such a devastating life. I’ll keep an eye out for her diaries. Her words and images speak volumes.

  6. Carol says:

    I’ve read this twice and it really is an amazing book. I tend toward reading lighter books, but this one really is worth it. Great review!

  7. I felt exactly the same way when I read the book. It really does help answer the question “Why would someone commit suicide?” I had not heard about her son–so very sad. Depression can sometimes be inherited, unfortunately. Now that I’ve had some time since reading the book, I may be able to watch the movie now.

  8. ilargia64 says:

    TBM: look what I have found..Review from The Guardian…
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/oct/19/biography.tedhughes
    …”Six years later, in March 1969, Wevill killed herself and Shura, their four-year-old daughter. At that time, his mother Edith appeared to be getting on well after an operation on her knee, but Hughes was afraid that the news might affect her recovery. In the following weeks he shunned his parents, and did not visit, phone or write to them. When his father asked Olwyn, Hughes’s sister, what the matter was, she told him but made him vow to keep it a secret. But he could not keep silent and told his wife. Edith suffered a thrombosis, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. Ted was certain that Wevill’s suicide was the final blow”..
    So, there were more deaths!!! I feel sorry for Mr Hughes…I am going to read as well some of his works…
    It is so interesting the whole thing!!!
    Thanks for starting it!

  9. patricia says:

    I feel bad I haven’t read this yet, but it’s on our bookshelf.

  10. nrlymrtl says:

    I expect that Plath wrote this book to bring a bit of understanding to the world and I don’t think you need feel guilty about enjoying it.

    I have not read this book yet because I think of it as a Heavy Book (emotionally and mentally) and would need to be in the right frame of mind to get the most out of it.

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