Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1963. Not long before her death, she submitted a manuscript to the Saxton Fellowship committee in London, part of the requirements for having earned the grant.This manuscript was The Bell Jar. Completed in the midst of a tumultuous marriage to famous British poet, Ted Hughes, the novel told the story of Plath’s summer years before. Her recollections of the time trace her path from past to present, lucidity to irrationality and back. The underlying knowledge that she can never truly escape the darkness deep down inside presents itself as a reminder of the things that cannot be.
Esther Greenwood, protagonist and representative of Plath, wins a prestigious internship in New York City for the summer. She and eleven other girls have been given the opportunity to live in a hotel, meet celebrities, eat at expensive restaurants, and write for a women’s magazine. Esther’s cynical and anxious view of the situation is immediately obvious. Like most other girls in the world, she is jealous. Unlike Esther, the girls who have won the internship have money and looks. She is too tall, skinny and her skin is yellow. They don’t have to worry about working hard and creating a future for themselves with their parents and rich men to fall back on. Esther is different.
Every little thing piles up and weighs her down. She has been working hard to be perfect for years in school and life. Now it seems this has gotten her nowhere. She has no idea what she will do. When her boss Jay Cee confronts her about it, telling her she must learn foreign languages to become an editor or work publishing, she cringes. ‘I started adding up all the things I could not do.’ This cannot be…Esther will not be AVERAGE.
Focusing on one issue would be bad enough, but Esther’s mind wonders from one worry to another in milliseconds. When Jay Cee brings up foreign languages, Esther associates this with her parents. They are 1st generation Germans. Being German in America after WWII carries a stigma. She’s always felt fear and shame about this. Combined with her conflicted emotions, Esther’s father passed away when she was only a young girl. ‘I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.’ The strain of having lost the main male role model in her life may have always played a role in her other relationships .
Buddy Willard is Esther’s first love and college sweetheart. In the eyes of society he is the perfect guy, a medical student, attractive, and one-woman man. Buddy puts up the front of being chaste and good until Esther comes out and asks him if he has ever been with a woman sexually. Of course he has, but her naïve little heart breaks. It isn’t until he proposes marriage that she rejects him outright.
Esther hates the idea of being tied down by any man. In fact, she incorporates several predictions about what her married life with Buddy will be even though she does’t ever consider marrying him. A woman in marriage would be ‘a slave in totalitarian state.’ Since the book is actually written after she’s had years of experience as a married woman, her words may be more of a commentary in regards to her own unhappy marriage. Nonetheless, her rejection of Buddy adds to the number of problems in Esther’s mind.
Although talented, Esther is young and doesn’t get accepted to the esteemed writing course for which she has applied. She must live with her mother in the suburbs for the summer for the first time in her life. She decides to write fiction, work on her thesis, sleep, escape, and change her program of study in the fall. All of this is too much for her. Finally, not having washed her hair in three weeks or slept in seven days, she makes a visit to Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist. He only angers her with his perfect looks and photos of his flawless family. What does he know about hopelessness, suffering?
No one understands Esther’s plight and it’s not going to get better. She plans her own death. First she tries slitting her wrists, but must bandage them up. That way won’t do. Next she heads to the beach to drown herself. She makes it out to sea, but is too scared to die in that way. Hanging doesn’t work because the ceilings are too low in the house. Finally she realizes sleeping pills are the way to go. Crawling into the cellar, she takes the whole bottle. The next thing she knows, she awakens to darkness and people talking. Her mother had come to do the laundry near the cellar and heard her moaning.
Esther’s mother asks her how she feels: ‘The same.’ She is sent to a nice hospital for recovery. She knows that no matter where she goes she’ll always be sad. She’ll be ‘Sitting under the same glass bell jar stewing in my own sour air.’ There are always small indications that she feels the strain of insecurity and depression. It won’t ever let go no matter how much treatment she gets.
The bell jar is a sealed off container, a trap the mind finds itself in. When the brain is ill, it is part of a person’s inner-workings. Did this make Esther’s ‘sour’ state of mind inevitable? Sylvia thought so. ‘How did I know that someday-at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere-the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?’ Of course, she was writing the story years later and knew the bell jar had come back to her.
For those who suffer from mental illness or depression Plath’s writing is familiar and, at times, painful to read. For any reader, it is eye-opening-a gradual portrayal difficulties people face in such instances. Considering the publishing date and the stigmas still associated with mental illness today; Plath’s willingness to be judged by society for her struggles is a tremendous accomplishment. This novel is not only groundbreaking in its subject matter, it’s a rightfully celebrated achievement in the literary community.
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
Film: Sylvia (2003)