The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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I recently re-read The Bell Jar and reaffirmed that it’s still one of my favourite books of all time. Let me tell you why…

The novel follows Esther Greenwood, a smart, plucky young lady who has everything going for her. Before long though, Esther starts to experience a decline in her mental health. Everything becomes too much for her and she tries to commit suicide. The novel is interesting because it shows, in great detail, Esther’s descent into mental illness and the treatments that were available at the time, such as shock therapy. The novel also explores the issue of identity as Esther struggles with trying to carve a niche out for herself within the patriarchy society of 20th century America. She longs to be independent, but the pressure of her oppressive, male dominated society doesn’t really allow that. This is, perhaps, one of the main reasons behind her growing depression.

The Bell Jar is considered a ‘roman a clef’ as it contains elements from Plath’s own life as well as fictional parts. It is well known that Sylvia Plath suffered with mental illness, in fact, she committed suicide a month after the novel’s UK publication. This, to me, makes the events in the novel much more realistic; Plath is speaking from her own experiences, she is speaking truth, she is speaking from the heart, and that makes it all the more tragic.

I really enjoy Plath’s writing style. It’s fluid and fast paced which makes the narrative easy to follow. This is important because the novel contains several flashbacks of Esther’s past, and Plath does a good job of making it easy to read. Plath’s characters are also very well fleshed out. You quickly come to sympathise with Esther’s growing hatred for her boyfriend Buddy Willard, and you’re glad when Esther finally has a woman she can trust in Dr Nolan.

The Bell Jar will always be a book that I will go back to again and again. I adore Esther’s characterisation and seeing her deal with her mental illness is painful, yet, as a reader, I found it to be very informative. The novel ends slightly ambiguously but leaves the reader hopeful that Esther can turn her life around and make something of herself.

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