A brilliant representation of internal turmoil through the eyes of a young woman.
First published in 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel. When I first picked up the book, I thought I was ready for the emotional journey I was diving into, but I was wrong. The way Plath’s presents intense and raw emotions, unafraid of stripping them down to the core, turned this book into an honest and valuable testimony of what is it like to deal with a mental illness.
This novel has a kind of fame that speaks for itself, both for the themes explored and the author’s suicide a month after the publication. Indeed, it’s difficult to give this roman à clef an innocent read, without searching for similarities between Esther Greenwood, the protagonist, and Plath herself.
The narration starts in the summer of 1953 in New York City where Esther, a brilliant student, has won an internship at a fashion magazine. Coming from Boston’s suburbs, this should have been the opportunity of a lifetime for Esther, who wanted to become a writer. Instead, she feels lost, uninspired and confused by what she actually wants in her life, and while she’s dealing with this internal struggle, all of her dreams and ambitions disintegrate under her sight.
Through a clever use of flashbacks, Plath brings together parts of Esther’s past, which highlight the strength of her character. She has also been considered a symbol of feminism and teenage angst, with her constant remarks on not wanting to get married or disobeying to the societal rules set on girls at that time.
Esther’s story is told with a strong sincerity where memories, reflections and vivid images blend together, giving life to a pure confession of some very intense experiences. Even when more lighthearted events are narrated, there’s always a veil of sadness, emptiness but also bitterness in Esther’s words, which don’t seem to leave her. Her psychological breakdown is meticulously marked by the bell jar which slowly descends upon the protagonist separating her from the rest of the world.
Plath’s choice of a first-person point of view, through Esther’s eyes, gives you access to her mind. It’s difficult to not get attached to this young girl with so much potential, and a feeling of empathy towards her will follow through the book.
Plath’s poetry background can be found in her style. With such elegant, precise and extremely delicate writing the author shows how, at times, simplicity can have a stronger impact than pretentious and intricate words or thoughts. She’s able to describe with chilling clarity some of the worst atrocities perpetrated on those affected by mental illnesses.
The Bell Jar is much more than just a romanced version of Plath’s life. While following Esther’s story, Plath paints a vivid image of some of America’s taboos in the mid-50s, bringing to life an evergreen internal sufferance. She perfectly depicts what is it like to be depressed — that frustration of having everything you’ve ever wished for at your fingertips and yet feeling deeply sad without an apparent reason.