“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
College student Esther Greenwood receives a scholarship to go work for a magazine in New York for a month. She and eleven other girls live in a women’s hotel and although the sponsor wines and dines the girls, as well as shower them with gifts, for Esther, it’s all unsatisfying. She battles with self-identity, melancholy, and views of femininity.
After the end of the programme she spends the rest of the summer with her mother.
From then on she becomes more unstable than ever and thoughts of suicide increasingly gnaw at her brain. After an overdose of pills, she awakes at a hospital and eventually ends up at a private psychiatry hospital. Through different kinds of therapy methods she improves and in the end, is due to start her winter semester at college.
The struggle with mental illness is deeply explored in the story through the journey it takes us from Esther’s battle, breakdown, and recovery. There’s something biographical about it too, as Sylvia Plath committed suicide not too long after the publication of The Bell Jar. The novel parallels her personal experiences.
The novel also makes a critical observation of the expectations imposed on women in the 1950s in America. The roles laid out for women were so restricted and we see this in Esther’s anxiety, unhappiness, and lack of fulfilment.
The Bell Jar also brings to the surface, the difficulty in understanding oneself, and the occasional inability to recognise oneself. The disparity between how one presents themselves to the world and their inward experiences can cause great challenges in how one builds self-identity and result in a disjointed sense of self.
This is Plath’s only novel and it is a strong and honest one. Although the main character is female and the themes in it deeply explore issues concerning women at the time, it can be read and applied to anyone, as all kinds of people can see themselves in the issues that it scrutinizes.