Book review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.

Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

It is hard to write a review of an autobiographic book. And it is sad that this book owes a great deal of its fame to the author’s suicide so early in her life. These two facts became indistinguishable from one another. But this is not what I want to write about in my review.

So what is The Bell Jar?

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.

It is the story of coming of age. Of having all doors opened before a girl, and it takes only but a second of doubt and everything crumbles. Does she want to have a life she was so desperately racing to? Does she want to be a perfect woman with a perfect husband and a perfect bunch of kids? Does she want to pursue her career? What does she want? This book feels personal on so many levels. I’ve faced so many similar choices in my life: hard choices and easy choices that consequently led to crush and despair. There are no right choices in life: only the ones that would lead us to happiness if only for a second.

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

But this book is also about what does it mean to be a woman; how sexuality defines a young girl in a patriarchate society. It’s about shame and acceptance of your own nature.

This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other men and they would end up by making her life miserable.

But most of all The Bell Jar is terrifying in its honesty of portraying hopelessness of descending into darkness by depression and helplessness of people around. Sometimes it only takes one wrong move, one unprofessional diagnosis and a person may be lost to saving. This book was denied publication in The United States for some time, because of the sensitive information about Sylvia Plath’s family it contained. It’s a family tragedy the world witnessed. The story brutal in its honesty.

“If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.”

Esther, Plath’s heroine, ends her story with an open question: whether the crisis is over or if it’s waiting around the corner? It gives hope but the cruel reality takes it from the reader, because for Plath, unfortunately, that question was answered in the most brutal way.

But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday–at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere–the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?

The Bell Jar is a story of coming of age and losing it all to darkness.

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