The Bell Jar

Monday, May 23, 2016


The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

Premise: Esther seems to have everything: talent, ambition, a prestigious summer internship in New York. But her brain is a jerk, as we might say today, and will drag her down.

Similar to Wintergirls, this is a book I recommend, but with reservations. I knew it was about depression, and realized quickly that it is a lightly fictionalized story of Plath’s own experiences with mental health treatment.

I knew The Bell Jar is highly regarded. I didn’t know how vivid, evocative, and painful a picture of depression it paints. I felt like I was walking in a fog for hours after I finished it.

It’s not just about severe clinical depression, but that particularly female intertwining of internal malaise with experiences of systemic and personal sexism. It’s no coincidence that The Bell Jar was first published the same year as The Feminine Mystique.

The combination of self-doubt, contradictory cultural messages, impossible choices, harassment, and mistreatment that many women are still more than passing familiar with doesn’t cause depression, but it doesn’t exactly help.

In that sense, Esther’s story is both universal and specific. Specific in the detailed pictures it draws: the publishing world in New York in a particular era, the experience of residential asylums in the same era, Esther’s personal downward spiral and impetus toward self-harm. Universal in that you easily feel why her depression seems logical to her, why she can’t see any way up from where she is, why she makes the choices she does.

The prose is masterful and moving, and it is for just that reason that today I give this book a big warning sticker. Know yourself, my fellow readers. Know whether you are likely to come through a story like this (knowing that Esther does make it out in the end, though Plath eventually didn’t) feeling empathetic to others, reassured in the reality of the descriptions, or shaken by how much of yourself you can see on the page.

5 Stars - Extremely Effective

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