The Bell Jar is a gripping novel written by Sylvia Plath in 1961. It is the only novel that Sylvia Plath wrote as she was mainly a poet. It is a book detailing events in the life of a girl called Esther Greenwood who has just finished her junior year of college. The Bell Jar is a sort of twisted coming of age story, in which the reader can experience first-hand how Esther, who is slowly going mad, sees the world. The novel is largely autobiographical, as Sylvia Plath, like Esther, got an internship at a magazine in New York, was very good at school and university and also tried to commit suicide. The Bell Jar is seen by many critics as an inside view of the mind of the great poet that is Sylvia Plath.
Esther Greenwood has just finished her junior year at college and has earned an internship at a prominent fashion magazine in New York City as guest editor. She lives in a hotel together with other girls who have also won this internship and they get to go to the most exclusive parties, have the best meals the city has to offer and get free gifts. For all the other girls this experience is highly enriching and enjoyable, but Esther starts to feel oppressed and sees the city and its customs in a negative way. When the internship is over she goes back home where she realises that she has not gained a place at a prominent writing class and things go downhill from there. This leads to a chain of events which sees her deteriorating into a state of mental illness.
The characters in the book are very interesting. Esther proves to be a very deep character whose detachment from the world surrounding her vastly affects the reader’s reactions. She also thinks of subjects such as sex, racism and traditions in a very logical and interesting way. Buddy Willard, who is one of Esther’s potential love interests whom she met in college, also plays a key role as he has a huge effect on Esther’s actions. He also plays an important part in Esther’s memories. . However the way he is described by Esther depicts him as a very vain, average, if a bit ridiculous, character who in a way represents the ideal husband in society as he is a doctor and comes from a pleasant family. Esther’s mother also plays a big role in Esther’s life as she is a single mother who cares immensely for her daughter and who gives Esther the drive to excel at all she does
The title of The Bell Jar comes from Esther describing her mental illness as some external force which nobody can control. It is a bell jar hanging over her which could fall on top of her and trap her at any moment. This metaphor is the most prominent in the novel and can be seen throughout. “Wherever I sat- on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok- I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” The bell jar represents the oppression of mental illness.
The way that it is written is so vividly first person that the reader really feels that they are a part of Esther. It also follows Esther’s train of thoughts throughout, shifting from time to time to Esther’s memories. The language used also fits in with Esther’s character, as the text is written in a beautiful way which enforces the fact that Esther is a writer:
“I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
This is an example of the way that her character is embodied. It also shows a good example of language which makes the reader truly understand Esther, as the metaphor is so profound and striking.
The novel is very interesting and gripping. However it is not for the faint hearted. There are very detailed descriptions of methods used to deal with mental illness which are very disturbing and Esther’s own thoughts can be very upsetting. On the whole I would give this novel five out of five stars at it provides insight into the mind of a mentally ill person and it is very interesting and informative, as well as very enjoyable.