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.