REVIEW: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

I first studied Sylvia Plath during A-Level English at sixth form college. We looked specifically at the poems from her collection ‘Ariel’, my favourite being ‘You’re’ – a poem about an unborn baby in its mother’s womb.

I liked this poem because it is not how you would expect a baby to be portrayed. We think of babies as being cute and cuddly, whereas Plath describes them as “like a sprat in a pickle jug. A creel of eels, all ripples.”

This semester, we are studying Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”, written shortly before she committed suicide at the age of 30. I finished the novel yesterday and despite it being emotionally draining, I found it rather fascinating.

The book is written in 1st person, with the narrator being a young lady called Esther. The novel follows Esther’s descent into mental illness, her repeated attempts at suicide and her staying in different mental hospitals.

At the beginning of the novel, Esther is in a summer internship at a magazine though she doesn’t seem as excited at the prospect of the big New York lifestyle as her fellow interns. Her narration is fairly dry, sarcastic and very truthful- other characters are described in a brutally honestly way, almost child-like in the fact that she doesn’t hold back on detail in order to avoid offence. Esther appears driven and determined to succeed, though there is suggestion that due to society she would have to choose between a career or a family. We read that throughout her life she’s done very well academically, so at the end of her internship when she learns she didn’t get onto a summer writing course, she takes it badly.

Because I know the background of Plath, I expected what was to come, though I believe a totally ignorant reader would not.

She sinks into a depression, not wanting to leave her bed and is unable to sleep for days on end despite being prescribed sleeping pills. Her mother refers her to a psychiatrist who suggests she should undergo electroconvulsive therapy, which is administered incorrectly, causing her condition to worsen.

Esther sinks further and further into her mental illness, and tries to end her life more than once, explaining that she feels like she is trapped “under a bell jar” unable to breathe. Her suicide attempts fail and she is admitted to a mental hospital where at the end of the story after various intriguing events it appears she may have improved her mental health. The story is open-ended, and finishes with Esther entering a room for an interview that will determine whether she can leave the hospital.

I found myself morbidly fascinated with the storyline, enjoying the opportunity to be inside another person’s mind – particularly with it being such a dark and troubled one. Again, Plath’s use of language enthralled me throughout, reminding me of what a truly talented writer she was.



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