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Measure for Measure

Book Review: “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

This novel was absolutely tragic and very well written.

The novel follows our protagonist Esther Greenwood, a young lady with everything going for her. She has an enviable lifestyle in New York – gorging herself on caviar and excelling in her studies.

Before long, the sheen starts to fade on this life. She begins to withdraw from society and sees less and less point in her activities. Her ambitions and plans seem to dissolve around her.

She returns to her mother’s house to find that her plan to take a writing course has fallen through. She then descends into a serious depression. She considers suicide and eventually tries to take her own life and is almost successful.

Her mother finds her and she is institutionalized and treated for her illness. Gradually, her condition improves and at the end of the novel she is ready to rejoin society.

The tragedy is that the novel was published and a few weeks later, Sylvia Plath did take her own life, so the suggestion of a happy ending for Esther Greenwood was not played out in the life of the writer.

The plot was very straightforward – I presume this is because it was largely autobiographical. Despite this simplicity, the novel was engaging because of the characterization of Esther and her friends, fellow-patients and doctors. There were very graphic descriptions of physical sensations and intense portrayals of the states of mind of the character.

In the midst of the treatment the narrator settles on “The Bell Jar” as a metaphor for her illness.

“… wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

After her first successful treatment, she feels:

“All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.”

The novel is packed full of witty observational incidents, awkward relationships and an exploration of the roles of men and women.

I intend to do some more reading now about Sylvia Plath and her life, in order to understand the events that gave rise to this novel. I would like to find out if this book was ground-breaking in the portrayal of mental illness in literature, as I suspect it will have been.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

  1. I had heard so many things about Sylvia Plath and the Bell Jar. Thank you so much for the review. I, like you, knew of her and her tragic life, but unlike you,I didn’t have the courage to delve into her books. I vaguely remember that she was married and had a daughter. It made for such sadness.

    • The book itself ends positively – but I couldn’t detach it from the reality that followed. I am going to read “Girl, Interrupted” which I think is a similar novel.

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