Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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One of the best books I have ever read. It may have just become my favourite, more than that, it made me realize that I never had a favourite before. Now, if somebody asked me what my favourite book is I wouldn’t have to think about it; it would flow out of me instantly: “The Bell Jar“.

I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

When you read this book you are put inside the bell jar. You breath the same swampy air that Sylvia breaths under the veil of depression. You fall into despair with her, and then, the realm beyond despair. You feel the emptiness inside her mind, so empty there isn’t even a desire for hope.

I felt limp and betrayed, like the skin shed by a terrible animal. It was a relief to be free of the animal, but it seemed to have taken my spirit with it […] .

It is 1953: America. For someone with depression this is a world of insane asylums and involuntary electroshock therapy. A world where boys ask you questions like “How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?“, your virginity is your worth and education is a privilege, with the prospect of work and being an independent woman even more unattainable. Some would even consider it outright weird. For most people, this is a world where your routine as a woman is chosen for you the moment you come squealing out of the womb and the doctors wipe you off and declare “it’s a girl”.

I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.

One theme I could really relate to in this book is the overwhelming pressure that is felt when we need to choose our path in life. Sylvia conveys this emotion through the metaphor of a fig tree, in which each fig represents a different path that she can take in her life:

I saw myself sitting at the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Sylvia’s eloquent and profound writing made me fall in love with this book. And I think that even for those of us who are lucky enough to not face the daily battle with depression, we can relate with Sylvia’s thoughts in our own way. She writes that we all sit under our own sort of bell jars. I think reading this book reveals something to the reader about the workings of their own mind, and the workings of others.

I should note that the main character in the novel is Esther Greenwood, but I have referred to these passages as if they were written as an autobiography of Sylvia’s life because the book is based off of true events in her life. She published the book under the alias “Victoria Lucas”, as is shown in the picture, because she was worried about the consequences for the characters in the book that were based off of real people, but were distorted slightly to fit the novel. The history of the publishing of the book is actually quite interesting, but if you want to know about that you’re just going to have to go out and read the book yourself!

What are your favourite books with themes of mental illness? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! xx

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