Book review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

4/5 stars

Audible version, narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Review contains spoilers, but in this case I don’t personally believe it matters very much, as it’s not the kind of novel you read for the plot.

This book is slow, mesmerising, poetic, sad, disturbing and beautiful. It’s a special kind of book that happens mostly in the mind of Esther Greenwood – our leading lady. It’s probably not for everyone.

While I’m not big on poetry, I am a sucker for any narrative that can explain succinctly and with beauty or humour or just plain truth, what it’s like to be proper depressed. And I did very much enjoy Plath’s unique and poetic language. She has a way of describing things in very unusual yet intuitively familiar ways.

Largely autobiographical, the story starts off following a clever, successful young woman, but it soon becomes clear that under the surface Esther feels all but successful. She struggles to fit in, to conform to her expected role as a “good girl” in 1950s America. She doesn’t seem to see the world around her as others do. And gradually she begins to crack.

We see Esther go from intern in a prestigious magazine in New York, to a broken girl returning home and having no plan for her life or even the rest of the summer. She’s lethargic. She tries to pick up the phone to call a friend but cannot even manage that. She stops showering and changing clothes. She suffers from insomnia. I’m sure most people familiar with depression will recognise something in this feeling of nothingness, this state of not really being, not doing. Being trapped under the oppressive lid of the bell jar and getting no air.

The bell jar also serves as a metaphor for being forced into the expected role of “woman”. Be good, study, learn short-hand, marry a nice man, be a virgin (all the while not caring that your future husband doesn’t have to live up to the same standards). Esther tries to rebel against such double standards, but is again confronted with the bell jar giving her no room to move.

Esther sees a string of doctors and therapists, has electro shock therapy more or less forced upon her, she attempts suicide and is institutionalised. All the way through she struggles to express herself and be heard, she doesn’t really feel like people are helping her.

It is pretty depressing reading (or listening, in my case), but a stark and personal portrait of struggles with mental illness in the 1950s. As we know that the work is based on Plath’s own experiences it becomes perhaps all the more poignant, also knowing the tragic end her life came to.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s soft and hypnotic narration complements the words beautifully (disclaimer: I am a big fan of miss Gyllenhaal and her voice, it may not be everybody’s thing).

I believe that the “suffering artist” stereotype is a myth. By which I mean I do not think you need to experience great, lasting, existential suffering, ultimately leading to suicide (be it of the more explicit sticking your head in the oven type or the semi-accidental alcohol or drug overdose type) in order to create great art. You just need to be aware of the world and people around you, question what you see and express that in your own unique way. You need to love, care, feel.

But I do think you have to have suffered from staggering, deep, soul crushing depression to write in a real way about what that feels like. That is the case for Sylvia Plath, for Sarah Kane, and for Allie Brosh – three women who all wrote very real narratives relating to their own struggles with mental illness in very different ways, that have all been very important to me. It’s important to feel like you’re not alone, that someone out there at some point at least understood what you were going through and could put words to it – words that can be shared with others, maybe to try and explain. Sadly, putting their experience with depression in writing was at great personal sacrifice to Sylvia Plath and Sarah Kane, I can only fervently hope things go better for Allie Brosh.

Where are you Allie? Are you OK?? (Read my review of Hyperbole and a half here).

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