The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
The story of a young woman in the early Sixties who becomes depressed after spending the summer in New York, when her plans for the future begin to unravel.
The Bell Jar is the only novel by American poet and writer Sylvia Plath, who was married to British poet Ted Hughes. Plath struggled with depression and committed suicide in 1963.
Classic literary fiction.
Esther Greenwood is a university student from Boston who starts the novel on a summer internship at a magazine in New York with several other young women. She is unable to enjoy the trip as much as the others girls and finds everything a bit meaningless. Esther has always been focused on academic achievement, but slowly realises that there is little else in life that appeals to her, which prompts her spiral into depression.
The novel is thought to be semi-autobiographical.
Key themes and motifs
- Written in the early 1960s, the book deals with the beginnings of the sexual revolution and the role of women in society.
- Feminism and patriarchal oppression.
- The treatment of psychiatric patients, with Esther’s electric shock therapy appearing in parallel to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs.
What’s to love?
An intelligent portrayal of a young woman dealing with societal expectations and finding her own way in life, this isn’t an easy book to read but it’s the sort of story that seeps into your bones and leaves you with a lot to think about.
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 Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, 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.”
As a story about one woman’s battle with mental illness, this is often a dark read. Some of the scenes involving Esther’s treatment are disturbing.
Read it if you enjoyed
- Prozac Nation, by Elizabeth Wurtzel
- The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
You can also check out my six degrees of separation blog post, which begins with The Bell Jar and links to six other novels.
Find out more:
The Bell Jar on Amazon (affiliate link)
The Bell Jar on Goodreads