Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, so tomorrow would have been her 83rd birthday. To commemorate her birthday, I’m posting my review of her best known prose which I read in 2007.
Review of The Bell Jar
This semi-autobiographical novel was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas less than a month before Plath’s suicide. It is supposedly based on Plath’s summer of 1953.
The narrator is Esther Greenwood, a gifted young woman, who describes her descent into crippling depression. No specific explanation is provided for the cause of her depression, although one of her problems seems to be choosing what type of woman she wants to be. She doesn’t want to pick one of the world’s female roles, examples of which she encounters.
This novel, considered a classic of American literature, reminds me of another coming-of-age classic: Esther is a female version of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Both protagonists are disenchanted with the world and feel out of place in society. The satirical comments about the world’s false outer shell sound like Holden’s comments about phonies.
The portrayal of psychiatric care is outdated, but the novel does offer insight into depression. Even the most promising or privileged can descend into a personal hell.
The ending is ambiguous. Is Esther cured? Several statements in the last chapter suggest a less than happy ending: “How did I know that someday . . . the bell jar and its stifling distortions wouldn’t descend again?” (254) and “But under the deceptively clean and level slate the topography was the same” (249).
Is the novel over-rated? Is it too much of a pity party? It does address issues most people face: feeling disenchanted with the world, creating a mask to deal with society and feeling guilty for doing so, and feeling like no one understands.
This is the type of book that would illicit different emotional responses depending on one’s stage in life. I think it would especially appeal to adolescents moving from the academic setting of the teenage world to the working setting of the adult world.