Sunday, 18 November 2012
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Author: Sylvia Plath
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Pages: 234 (Paperback)
Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality.
About this time last year, I read Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, possibly one of my all-time favourite books. After I'd finished, a lot of people recommended that I read The Bell Jar, saying that if I loved Girl Interrupted, The Bell Jar would blow my socks off. And blow them off it did, indeed.
The Bell Jar follows a year in the life of Esther Greenwood, a young woman with an amazing future. She has everything a girl could want; a future doctor wanting to have her hand in marriage; a scholarship to a prestigious college; an opportunity to work in New York for a month; a good few friends. However, as her life is just about to begin, her mood begins to spiral down. The novel follows her descent into the darkest depths of her mind, and how she deals with the cards she's been dealt.
Although some may think it is depressing, I love novels surrounding mental illness. Because of things from my past, I've always been intrigued by psychology, and it's the subject I hope to pursue throughout University. So really, novels about mental illness is really a sandwich of my two favourite loves; psychology and books. I also love how each book dealing with these topics approach mental illnesses in a different way; no two books are the same, and I love the different perspectives you gain from such reads.
What I tend to find in some novels dating from the 20th century and back is that the language is quite old and difficult to understand - for example, Charles Dickens. He was a genius, but it takes quite a lot of patience and time to thoroughly read one of his novels. I didn't find this was Plath; it may as well have been a modern book. I just fell head over heels in love with her style of writing - the descriptions were so gorgeous, and she wrote about the scene the perfect amount: not enough to send the reader to sleep, but just enough to envision the characters going about their lives. Her style of writing just completely melded with me.
Now the characters. I liked all the background characters, and I thought they were all brilliant for what they represented, but I want to concentrate on Esther. I thought she was the perfect protagonist for this novel. I found that I was able to empathize with her feelings of anxiety and helplessness, and I felt that Plath wrote in such a way that the reader was able to penetrate her skin - her barriers - and catch a glimpse of her inner demons. It was very powerful, and for me, it definitely struck a raw nerve. As I read more of the novel, I felt myself growing close to Esther, and by the end it was like I was wishing an old friend well.
I think the thing that makes this book really hard-hitting is the fact that a month after it's first UK publication, Plath committed suicide. This novel wasn't just something she dreamt up - part of her lived in this unknown world of angst and despair, and that was really clear throughout the pages. It was like she was sharing her own, personal story with us.
I'd be lying if I said she wasn't one of my literary heroines. This is the first piece of literature that I've read of hers, but I'm keen to read much more. There's just something about her writing that clicked with me, and the literary world suffered a great loss when she passed away. If you're at all interested in psychology and mental illness, or love novels like Girl, Interrupted and It's Kind of a Funny Story, then this has to be on your TBR list; it's the book that started it all.