I’ve wanted to read The Bell Jar for quite some time and really don’t know why I waited so long while the book sat on a shelf unread. I’m glad I finally gave it my attention and was somewhat disturbed at how easily I could relate to Plath’s alter-ego, Esther.
I’m sure I’m not letting the proverbial cat out of the bag when I reference the author’s tragic suicide and this book’s autobiographical foreboding. Initially published under a pseudonym, perhaps Plath wanted to keep her demons close to the chest. Whatever the reasoning, a truly gifted artist departed this life prematurely.
Set in New York and Massachusetts, The Bell Jar is considered autobiographical in nature in that it closely mimics Sylvia Plath’s early college years, her stint as a guest editor in New York and subsequent breakdown following her suicide attempts. Only a gifted writer could make fun of the ultimate in self-destructive behavior and elicit chuckles as she deftly describes trying to drown herself and continuing to bob to the surface and float atop the water’s surface.
Esther Greenwood is the fictionalized version of the college age Sylvia Plath tormented by severe depression exacerbated by coming of age angst. The character, like the author loses her father at an early age and repeatedly refers to that time as her last truly happy moments. A bright and eager student, she is awarded an opportunity as a guest editor in New York and at first glance seems like any other young adult trying to fit in and make the most of her experiences. When her mental state is finally acknowledged, Esther is institutionalized and given electric shock treatments. When she is moved to a better facility, as afforded by a wealthy author, it seems only the food has improved. Shock treatments continue and it seems no one has ever really talked to Esther and asked her what she wants, feels, needs…
Mrs. Greenwood, Esther’s mother, is a hardworking widow who teaches shorthand to support her family. She has great difficulty recognizing her daughter’s struggles and when it becomes more than evident, she puts too much faith in the doctors that treat Esther. With little support and understanding, she does her best to help her daughter.
Esther’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Buddy Willard is very conventional and an unlikely match. He studies medicine and takes Esther along to get an insider’s view, including autopsies, jarred specimens and childbirths. He cannot relate to Esther’s interest in writing and extols the roles of women in marriage. He contracts tuberculosis and is sent to a special hospital and cannot understand why Esther does not want to spend her time there.
I would love to sit with Ms. Plath and hear her read some of her poetry. Perhaps she could share with me where she did her writing and if she shared it with others before presenting it to the publishing world. What I’d really want to do, more than anything, is have her speak with an understanding and empathetic mental health expert.
My rating for The Bell Jar is a 9 out of 10.
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