Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: The Bell Jar

Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Genre: Autobiographical fiction, coming-of-age fiction
Rating: ★★★★★  

for review

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! :)


  1. One of my favorite parts are the clear feminist view - and that they're still relevant. I read this in the midst of reading a lot of feminist non-fiction and it was such a relief that Esther wasn't completely down with the system. Books that tell stories of older times often have to put women (and other groups) in the place where they were at the time, but it doesn't mean the characters have to be okay with it. I just loved that aspect of the book so much.
    And I was once again horrified by how they treated mentally ill! It's insane that they used lobotomy and electrocution.

    I loved your review :) I got this book in Christmas present so I can read it again at any time!

  2. That's my favorite part too! That's one of the highlights, I guess, aside from Esther's gradual mental breakdown. Can you suggest those feminist non-fiction books to me? I'm thinking of reading them next year. :))
    I know, right! Just thinking of it gives me shivers. Esther didn't describe the operations meticulously, but you know it's quite horrifying.

    Thank you! :)

  3. Well, I can, but they are all Swedish books. The best one was Under det rosa täcket (Beneath the Pink Blanket, directly translated), by Nina Björk, but I don't think it's been translated to any other language. And then there was Kan kvinnor tänka? (Can Women Think?) by Tuva Korsström and it's only in Swedish and Finnish I think. Sorry! But they gave some great tips of other books, the most important I can think of is Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. I look forward to reading more of it next year and if I find anyone I like I will tell you about it!
    A movie on the subject is Miss Representation, which is about women in media and politics in the USA, but as American media is consumed everywhere I think it's still very important. It was a brilliant movie.

    Yes! Just knowing they did it is horrible. And it got so real. I've read about it in school, but in that book it actually happend to another person. Ugh.

  4. Right, I'll try to check out the ones that are translated to English. Thanks for the recs, I really think I need to read more feminist fiction. I'll be looking for the movie Miss Representation right away! :D I think I should see it, since I studied journalism here.

  5. That's right! I'm thinking of studying journalism! I'm not much into writing journalistic, but I think it would be such a great way to know more about proper ways to see what's wrong and why.. I just get angry when I see unfairness and I want to be able to point out what's wrong and talk about it coherently. And I think it is the only way these days to actually make a difference (through media). Unless you are some very powerful politician. I don't know... I just think it might be fun!

  6. I wholeheartedly agree on that--media being the way to make a difference. It's just sad that even now media tend to use their influence to their advantage. You know, by presenting biased news and whatnot. :( It can be fun, yes! But in our country, it's kind of scary, too. Extrajudicial killings of mediamen aren't stopping up to now, and the reporters that are usually assassinated are the ones who are not afraid to speak their minds/report a powerful someone's wrongdoing. :( I think we ranked 2nd in the list of countries worst for journalists, just next to Iraq. We're not even at war! :'(

  7. OH my goodness! I keep forgetting that just because most people have internet - and are therefore pretty similar in ways of information and the like - it's not the same in ways of free speech. It makes me so sad. I know I will never have to be scared of THAT. Or anything. And should use it, I really should, to spread the freedom I have randomly been given (just because I live in a certain area!) to more people. I HATE the fact that we have countries and borders, because everyone wants to protect them.

    It also so weird that I didn't know that about the Philippines! In Sweden it's well-known that countries like China and some African countries and some South American countries have very limited freedom of speech and media and such. I find it so weird it's not as known about the Philippines. It makes me sad. All information - even the one in Sweden - is so biased. Just like you said. I wish I could do something.