Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

We follow Esther Greenwood’s personal life from her summer job in New York with Ladies’ Day magazine, back through her days at New England’s largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tyre: “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road” … Esther Greenwood’s account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.

I was sitting around the other night, contemplating what to read. I couldn’t pick, so asked my boyfriend to pick for me. He told me to get on to reading The Bell Jar, since he really enjoyed it when he read it. I really wasn’t expecting to love it, thinking it would be ridiculously depressing and probably not my sort of thing… how very wrong I was. I regret letting this book sit unread on my shelf for so long, because I’ve been missing out on a really beautiful book.

I found Esther an amazing protagonist, as she was both mixed up but relatable. I felt like she could have been me at some points, which was a little bit spooky. Some of the things she said made me laugh, because they were exactly what I had been inwardly thinking but never saying, while others were far more sobering.

“What do you have in mind after you graduate?”

What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate
school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write
books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort. Usually I had
these plans on the tip of my tongue.

“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.”

The prose was gorgeous and the plot moved along at a cracking pace. I particularly liked the first half of the novel, as I felt like the second section dragged quite a bit towards the end. The whole thing, however, was beautifully written and made me really feel like I knew Esther. She went through a lot, but so often had dry comments to add about her situations that just made me want to hug her.

I loved the way Plath sympathetically characterises the different people within the story. Even minor characters feel fleshed out and real, like you could just meet them in everyday life. I really appreciate that in a novel, because so few get it so perfectly right consistently. I loved the way Plath used Joan as a mirror of Esther, because she managed to do it without feeling too forced, or like she was beating you over the head with their similarities.

Buddy Willard and his family, as well as Esther’s mother, were so typical of how people continue to react to mental illness.Esther’s illness is as real as Buddy’s, but he is treated with respect, despite his diminished physical state. Esther is prodded, questioned, yelled at and disrespected by so many people who could have, and should have, helped her. This is so absolutely typical of what happens to people who experience mental illness, and it makes me sad that so little has changed. Esther’s fear of the shock treatment was so believable and mirrors Plath’s own terror over the treatments, and who could really blame them? It was utterly barbaric, especially when done incorrectly, which happens in the story.

I really loved Esther’s questioning of her role as a woman, as a sexual being and as a modern female. Plath was speaking for many, many women in the 1950’s when she said:

“I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I
had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

There were a few more lines that I just sat back and thought “Yes!”, but I’d end up quoting half the book, and I’m sure the publishers wouldn’t like that too much!

It’s not often that a book grabs me from the first page, but The Bell Jar was one of those books. I’m going to be seeking out some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and perhaps her diaries, because her writing is just so lovely and so deep. I’m giving this novel a 4.5/5 stars, because the ending wasn’t quite as good as the beginning and the book began to drag from about the three quarter mark, but otherwise, this novel is absolute perfection. I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you feel a bit lost or like you’re just muddling through life… I think most of us feel that way at least some of the time.

4.5/5 stars and a long awaited Leo!



12 thoughts on “Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. I *really* envy you having your first read of this book – I did in my teens and loved it to death. I just re-read and reviewed it recently and was ecstatic that it was still as brilliant. I’d recommend her short stories too – “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” – and her “Letters Home”. Basically just read anything she ever wrote. (You can see pictures of my Plath collection here if you like:

    • Holy moly, you do have quite the collection going! I’m impressed!! I’m going to put those two onto my life of stuff to hunt down, thanks!
      I’m cranky with myself for not getting to it sooner, but in some ways I feel like it’s the perfect moment in my life to read it.

  2. I read this a couple of years ago and it really stuck with me. I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it that seems like the wrong word but I thought it was a beautifully written novel.

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  5. I too read The Bell Jar recently and had a similar reaction to it. I think the Esther was super relatable during the first half of the book, but as the depression started to take over, she becomes more distant. I think Plath marvelously captured the anxiety and confusion that many experience close to graduation (or post-graduation), but she also has some very valid points about mental illness and the pressures directed at women (as opposed to men).

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