The Bell Jar

I’ve read The Bell Jar three times now, which is a fact I tend not to share with future employers, concerned family members, or the people installing my new oven. It’s the kind of book I enjoyed when I was 16, yes, but it’s also the kind of book that I can revisit at 24 and still appreciate, perhaps even in a more nuanced way. While it certainly appeals to the alienated teenager in all of us, The Bell Jar is much more than just a how-to guide for failed suicide attempts. Its narrator is as smart, funny, and charming as they come, and many of her struggles—perhaps barring the whole “I feel like I’m suffocating under a bell jar” one—are relatable to readers of any age.

The typical pressures of being a student, not having much money, and, of course, being a woman are observed through the wry, and often very witty, eye of Plath stand-in Esther Greenwood, a born writer who is as engaging as she is astute. The novel has a very breezy, even conversational, feel, all while tackling a very serious subject. As, no doubt, even someone only casually acquainted with the book already knows, Esther decides to kill herself. The first half of the book leads up to this event, and the latter half deals with its aftermath. The events are closely based on Plath’s real-life breakdown and suicide attempt, which means that the mind set and the emotions are authentic. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the novel is probably due to the fact that Plath captures depression so convincingly, so thoroughly, and so hauntingly.

The novel begins with Esther, listless and aloof, interning at a major magazine in New York City. Although she knows she should be thrilled with the attention lavished on her, and invigorated by the chance to live, for a month, on her own in the city, she instead feels nothing. She cares little for the events being put on for the benefit of the summer interns—she is one of many girls selected for the program—and she even tags along indifferently on the extracurricular excursions of her party girl friend, Doreen. Though inwardly thoughtful and observant, she is often outwardly passive, occasionally allowing herself to be led into dangerous situations. She is unsure of what type of woman she wants to be: the rebellious Doreen, the sweet Betsy (whom Doreen disparagingly calls “Pollyanna Cowgirl”), or the professional Jay Cee, her editor. Each of them represents a side of Esther, but none can encompass all of her hopes, her desires, her yearnings. Nor can they resolve her anxieties over how to be a woman who is not just a wife, or a mother, or a career person—that is, how to be a woman who is everything she wants to be, and nothing she doesn’t want to be.

After an unfulfilling start to the summer, Esther returns home for what she hopes will be a brief stay. Before her internship, she had applied for a summer writing class taught by a renowned author; upon her arrival back home, she learns that she was rejected from the program. Distraught over this news, as well as over having to live alone with her mother, Esther begins to unravel. She sleeps all day, and discovers she can no longer read anything more than scandal sheets, with their flashy, trashy headlines about celebrity comas and suicide rescues. She begins to entertain her own thoughts of suicide, until, eventually, she acts on them. She loads herself up with all the pills prescribed by her doctor and hides herself away in a cubbyhole under the house. A sensational search ensues, and Esther is rescued before the pills can do much damage. The remainder of the novel details Esther’s treatment, and her gradual emergence from her captivity under the bell jar.

Despite the dark subject matter, the novel has many humorous moments, some which occur even after Esther’s suicide attempt. Esther is a clever, comical person, and she can appreciate the absurdity of many of the situations she finds herself in. Of course, she also struggles with the injustices of her time, and such anxieties are often at the heart of her ostensibly amusing encounters. In particular, her keen awareness of the double standard for women troubles her throughout. She is incensed when she learns that the value of sexual purity is so one-sided, and deeply bothered by those who suggest that she will abandon her career aspirations once her first child is born. For someone whose existence so far has been defined by academic excellence, the insinuation that it might not be everything, that it could end up being meaningless, is too much to bear. Indeed, when we consider how stifling society itself is for a motivated woman like Esther, we might begin to wonder if it may have contributed to the suffocating atmosphere of the bell jar. And, with that, the novel feels less like a story of mental illness and more like a coming-of-age tale, still important to young girls and women in this time.

Thus, Esther Greenwood is the perfect narrator precisely because she is so complex: funny yet despairing, struggling yet determined. She is not defined by her depression, nor is she free to transcend it on her own. Esther is the kind of narrator who welcomes readers in with her conversational tone, yet doesn’t fail to challenge them, to make them think. And, so, with each new reading, The Bell Jar still feels fresh, interesting, and thoughtful. It is a glimpse into a world likely different from our own, yet familiar enough to consistently startle.

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