on 5 September 2006
As a real book worm, I knew that this book was semi-autobiographical before I read it, and I had thought that Plath would struggle to remove herself enough from her situation in order to be able to write about it in a subjective way. I am pleased to say however, that I was mistaken! Plath describes excellently the plunging depths of depressive illness, even conveying to me - someone who has never suffered from depression - the true despair and suffocation that can be experienced.
The bell-jar itself is a description of how it feels to fall into a period of depression- entering into a suffocating, surreal and distorted world where only you live- unable to communicate with anybody.
One piece of symbolism I really enjoyed in the book was the notion of the fig tree, and how your life can be represented by a fig tree...so many branches representing the many paths you could take in life. The choice of; which branch will lead you to a delicious fig?...but the ever conscious notion that if you take too long to decide your path, the figs will all be rotten by the time you pick one.
I really enjoyed this book. Excellent read.
Sylvia Plath is probably one of the most recognisable female authors and poets of modern times, she will be largely remembered for her haunting poetry of depression and mostly autobiographical novel (the first and last) the Bell Jar in which her real life persona is replaced by Esther Greenwood, a young woman who is on the verge of breaking into the writing world. In the first section of the book Esther is an intern in New York working for a prestigious fashion magazine. It is clear from the outset that she has worries as she cannot find any immediate beauty in the cosmopolitan world of NY, she merely carries on day to day but it is clear the enjoyment and excitement is gone.
As the book progresses we see her return home where she essentially suffers a nervous breakdown in which she is unable to move from her room and concludes that the everyday tasks of life are too unbearable. She then goes on the journey into a deep depression in which she clearly considers the best method for suicide, has regular visits to a psychiatrist and spends time in a mental rehabilitation unit. The one thing that this book highlights is the terrible way in which mentally ill people were treated in the 50’s and early 60’s, the method of electric shock therapy to eradicate her depressed feelings leaves her scared of any other ‘help’ she may receive, and we see how petrified she becomes when next given this ‘treatment’ albeit once more under more friendlier circumstances.
The story is a powerful evocation of Plaths own mental health issues and by writing this book she successfully suggested to a quietened nation of other mental health sufferers that it was ‘ok’ to feel this way and that it happened to the best and most promising bright young things. The way in which the Bell Jar is still seen as a core piece of literature on depression shows the values it holds even today, when rivalled against other authors memoirs such as Elizabeth Wurtzel’s ‘Prozac Nation’ and later on ‘More, now, again’ she remains the original and possibly the best writer on the issue of depression and mental health.
on 3 July 2007
Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel is a harrowing, thought provoking insight into the mind of a woman who is almost synonymous with mental illness.
Indeed, the mental health issue runs through the novel and the main character, who is based on Plath in a number of ways, spends a significant amount of time in a mental institution, dealing with the effects this has on her and her condition. The work provides a haunting insight to the reality of a mental illness, and how this affects the sufferer and their immediate family and friends.
From studying Plath's poetry, it can be clearly seen that the central character is based on the author. The most obvious representation comes from their conditions in the novel (bi-polar disorder, abandonment issues, a hint of an Electra Complez) and if you know anything about Plath, many short quotations in the novel take on a much more significant meaning than they would on their own. In fact, it is probably best to understand the writer's basic background before approaching the novel.
So far, I've painted a picture of a heavy, depressing read. Whilst I cannot deny that it is a heavy book dealing with a massive subject, I did not find it depressing in any way, but rather fascinating.
"The Bell Jar" is a crucial work of American literature, and is an essential purchase for any fan of Plath's work, or any fan of literature in general. Be warned, however, that it is a heavy book, particularly if you do not understand the background.
on 6 February 2007
This book is a portrayal of a 'descent into insanity' but not in the dramatic way one might assume. What is most striking about this book is the calm, rational, measured tone used throughout. It is almost as if Plath is convincing the reader that these thoughts and sentiments are perfectly normal. The articulate prose does not seem to be the product of a garbled mind. The underlying humour of the narrative also seems to undercut the theme of depression. However, depression permeates the text as it permeates the character's life. There is lethargy, indifference, a failure to see the point of life. Yet all of this is presented in almost a casual manner - not to make light of the subject, but rather to effectively convey how for the depressive, such notions are part of everyday life. In this way, Plath manages to portray a difficult and heavy subject in a manner which any reader can understand.
on 11 August 2004
This novel is the retrospective viewpoint of Esther Greenwood's (a thinly disguised Plath) mental breakdown. The narrative voice is lucid, yet disembodied. As Esther says in the opening paragraphs "I knew something was wrong with me that summer"...."I was supposed to be having the time of my life". It is as if the characher is saying 'this is what happened to me but it feels as if it happened to someone else' - a totally dislocating and disembodying experience.
The novel has a poignant poetic quality and I know we shouldn't read it with the author's biography in mind, but somehow I can't separate out her poetry from her life and from the novel.
The imagery of Esther discarding her useless clothes, (which she describes as "hanging limp as fish in my closet"), to the wind, across a New York skyline, is one example of what I perceive as as a disembodied experience. This is made explicit by Esther's observation that it was like scattering "a loved one's ashes". It is almost like an out-of -body experience, as if she had already died, or some part of her that she could not come to terms with had died. The same kind of disembodied experience is framed in Esther's swimming out to sea, where she imagines her shoes will be found on the beach,pointing like a soul compass towards her destiny. This is a staging of events:
"The whole landscape - beach and headland and sea and rock - quavered in front of my eyes like a stage backcloth".
All the best poets have a melancholic frame of mind and their work is, thus, infused. Plath's work epitomises this dark, descending, cloud of depression and frames it for us in the stale air of The Bell Jar.
on 3 March 2007
I first read 'The Bell Jar' on recommendation from my English teacher as I studied for A Level English Literature. I didn't have particularly high expectations - I like Plath's poetry but I suppose I thought an entire book like it might be rather tiresome!
How wrong I was.
Some people describe this book as hard to get into, but I have to say I didn't find that at all. I read the whole thing in a day, beginning at 10am and finishing at about 10pm, with hurried breaks for meals!
I was struck by how similar it was to 'The Catcher In the Rye' (itself one of my favourite novels), but the difference is that 'The Bell Jar' has overtones of feminism, which really struck a chord with me as I am interested in feminist issues.
Also, I noticed that one reader on here said that Plath didn't detail exactly why Esther descended into depression - I disagree. It was the futility of everything; just the first few pages tell you that. "It was the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs" says Esther.
What I loved about this book was the way I managed to identify with the main character, to whom I am fairly similar. Esther is humourous and succint, and (at the beginning at least) perfectly normal. It is clear also that she is an extremely intelligent young woman. That is what makes what happens to her all the more disturbing; it could happen to you, too.
on 9 February 1999
The drift into insanity is so fluidly retold that it is easy for the reader to become emotionally connected to it. Her actions seem almost reasonable until she allows you to step away and see just how odd the protagonist is and feels. This is not just a tale about tortured genius. It is a tale about a very real mental illness, which can so often, as with Plath, have fatal consequences. "The Bell Jar" is, therefore, an important work and a beautifully written novel.It is not depressing in itself. It is often funny with sharp observations and dark wit. I read it very quickly, it being a short novel and completely captivating. The honesty of it tears at your heart and you find yourself deeply caring about Sylvia Plath.
on 26 August 2001
The most amazing thing about this novel, is how this much feeling and this many confused thoughts can fit so beautifully into a novel. The story, in the first person narrative, follows Esther, a narrator who it is painfully easy to totally identify with, as she suffers a nervous breakdown. This book seems so beautiful in the way it always seems to be telling the truth, there is nothing pretentious or made up sounding, because all of it seems so brilliantly truthful. Esther does not only share her breakdown with the readers but she also tells us about her thoughts about other things, events that are going on at the time, and social mannerisms. The book is filled with little beautiful details of how Esther thought about a certain event, or person. After reading this novel I kept on thinking, when ever i saw anything, 'I wonder what Esther would have thought about that'. That is how powerful the narrative is. This novel deals with really deep themes in a really accessible way. It's a sort of coming of age novel, with a dark side to it. I read this novel with out putting it down at all. It was so brilliant. I couldn't stop reading it. It's intense yet easy to read. The best novel I have ever read.
on 22 July 2003
This book is unlike any other that I have read so far. Instead of focusing mindlessly on a linear plot, it delves deep into the psyche of a young, seemingly ordinary woman. Esther's disturbed mind is mirrored by the fragmented narration of the plot; the author blends flashbacks and commentaries in with the actual time at which the novel is set on many occasions, which can be perplexing at times. I believe that this adds to the very individual experience of reading such a work of genius.
I found the image of the bell jar astounding, yet extremely disquieting at times as I often found myself imagining such a jar surrounding my head in the way the author describes in the novel. The author succeeds in projecting aspects of her personality, which the reader can relate to (or, at least, I could). Her depiction of reality through the eyes of a cynical, intelligent youth is insightful and refreshingly candid, albeit all too familiar, to such an extent that I found myself laying the book down so that I may recuperate from its chilling message.
I highly recommend this book to all those who love the classics, especially those who enjoy reading material that challenges the mind.
on 22 November 2000
I read this book and will read it again and again and again. Sylvia Plaths writing is smooth, easy and deeply absorbing.
A semi-autobiographical book, it deals with the breakdown of Esther and her time spent learning to come to grips with overwhelming depression. The eerie part of the book was the empathy I felt in reading it, the empathy many young teenagers or woman can probably relate to.
After reading the Bell Jar I ran out buying more books/poetry by Sylvia Plath wanting to get more into her mind - the Bell Jar gives you just a little taster of her genius that in the end ultimately destroyed her.
Recommend this book to all your friends - I dare anyone not to love it.