Author: Sylvia Plath
Genre: Autobiographical fiction, coming-of-age fiction
Imagine this: you are perched atop a pedestal and your lucky stars are smiling down on you. It seems like nothing could go wrong, but deep inside there’s this soft hum of doubt in your heart. Then you catch a glimpse of a fragment of your broken future, rendering you immobile. You look up to find a big bell jar descending upon you, caging you in a glass prison where there is no way out. You feel suffocated; you think of escaping, but every attempt goes awry. The chorus of the voices in your head is singing their dirge for your mind, and the noises from the outside world are distorted and unintelligible. You feel stifled, isolated, and lost.
This is how Sylvia Plath more or less described the slow mental breakdown of Esther Greenwood, protagonist of her only full-length prose work, The Bell Jar. Since the book is often considered as a roman à clé or an autobiographical fiction (with Esther as the author’s thinly veiled fictional alter ego), it’s safe to say that Plath shared a firsthand account of what it was like to have a disintegrating sanity after spiraling down into depression.
In the book, the parallels in Plath’s and Esther’s lives occurred between 1953 and 1954. Esther wins an internship on a prestigious New York magazine; she holds the position most girls her age would kill for, yet for some weird reason, she is confused and dissatisfied. When she learns that she is rejected from a writing course she wanted to join after her internship, she is completely devastated. She goes home with her mother, and everything goes downhill from there.
Most of the issues Esther grapples with are connected to 1950s American gender roles. Being a woman in that era seems to be synonymous with the word ‘inferior.’ Esther struggles with her identity, her status in the society, and her choice of vocation.The patriarchal society’s insistent pigeonholing of the ‘appropriate woman’ pressures her to no end, sending her to ricochet between wanting to get in sync with everybody else and needing to latch to the possibility of her lofty dreams’ realization. While women at that time are encouraged to be successful in their own chosen fields, they are also expected to be subservient housewives—sacrificing their career and dreams—when they marry. “This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s,” Esther ponders after envisaging the quotidian life a suburban housewife. The book, in its depiction of men as shallow individuals with usually off-kilter morals, seems to ridicule the established fact of feminine inferiority. However, it also shows several aspects of women’s vulnerability in a world that refuses to take their aspirations seriously. Esther herself is an example—she is intelligent all right, but her inability to take part in the normality of the world around her (or is it the inability of the world to accommodate a woman like her?) causes her sanity to crumble.
The book also touches issues about dating, relationship, and sex that are still relevant today. Why are women who had many sexual partners in the past considered “sluts” when men with the same reputation are referred to as the “cool guys”? Does having premarital sex prove I’m a bad woman? Does not having any sexual intercourse before marriage prove I’m prude? These are only few of the questions Esther finds herself asking.
Since I’m aware of Plath’s fate, the reading experience came with an excitement closely akin to opening letters addressed to a celebrity that somehow wound up on my doorsteps. My thrill meter went up a notch when I find many moments of Esther’s life unnervingly relatable, especially in the first few chapters. But what I liked the most about the novel is the astonishing honesty of Plath’s prose—it’s so naked and unflinching, so determined in showing you the raw facets of life and death in the eyes of someone who is trying to experience both…and seemingly failing. I myself didn’t know how to describe it at first. And of course, there are parts that will remind you that you are reading the Plath, paragraphs that are punctuated with a poetic feel.
As evidenced by the effective depiction of 1950s America, I’ll say the world-building is ace…even if (or especially?) it’s seen through the kaleidoscopic perspective of a mentally disturbed lady.
Overall, The Bell Jar is an excellent book that I will definitely revisit in the future. There are some moments involving electroconvulsive therapies and multiple suicide attempts, but they’re nothing really harrowing. I highly recommend this! :)