02 January 2024

Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath book cover

I finally read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I'm sad to say it was a disappointing experience. Esther Greenwood is a 19 year old student from Boston and the first half of this slim modern classic is a rather pedestrian coming of age story centring around the search for purpose and direction in life.

Knowing The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical is part of the appeal and part of the problem. Sylvia Plath famously committed suicide just a month after The Bell Jar was published - under a pseudonym - by gassing herself in the kitchen with her children in the next room.

In The Bell Jar, Esther is paralysed by the possible futures, giving rise to my favourite passage from the book:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was... and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in 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." Page 73
The fig tree metaphor was insightful but where other readers saw hope and optimism, I saw helpless misery. Plath uses her writing to provide insight into Esther's mental health, although we never learn of a specific diagnosis:
"Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently." Page 140
Esther's sudden and unexplained decline dominates the narrative in The Bell Jar as she deals with a failed romance, equivocates over whether to attend summer school and even fancies she'll spend the summer writing a novel.

Eventually Esther hasn't slept for seven nights, has worn the same clothes for three weeks without bathing or washing her hair, and doesn't see the point anymore because, in Esther's words: "everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end." Oh save me!

While Plath's mother didn't want The Bell Jar published, Esther's mother helps her to seek medical advice and intervention which leads to a series of shock therapy treatments in private hospitals.

There were some moments of writing I enjoyed, like this one:
"I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment on to the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station-wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies." Page 109
However, these moments - of wondering what tennis rackets smell like - were few and far between, and when accompanying a narrative like this: "I might go and drown myself in the sea, or perhaps cut myself with razors," I found The Bell Jar to be an emotionally draining downer of a book.

Then there was the weird visit to see a doctor for a diaphragm fitting (it's the 1950s after all), and later Esther suffers from excessive haemorrhaging after losing her virginity in a scene that isn't adequately explained.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath now joins the Carpe Librum Disappointing Classics Club and is in good company, along with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Plague by Albert Camus, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

If this is a beloved classic of yours or you think I've completely missed the point about how groundbreaking this novel was for its time, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Let me have it!

My Rating:

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