I chose to read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath for a book about mental health, #16 on the 2018 Reading Challenge. I came across Sylvia Plath when I began researching notable women authors. I’d heard her name before, but never read any of her work. I found this book on a list of novels about mental health. The premise intrigued me, so it joined my list.
The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young college student on scholarship in an honors English program. As the novel opens, she’s participating in an internship program with eleven other young ladies. The story follows Esther’s descent into depression and madness.
Written from the first person perspective, this novel takes the reader along on a deeply personal journey. Esther struggles to define herself and her place in the world. When things begin to fall apart at the end of her internship and she isn’t accepted into the summer writing program she was counting on, Esther falls into a spiral of depression, suicidal thoughts and ultimately attempts to take her own life.
In this book, Plath not only took on the debilitating aspects of depression and mental illness, she also tackled issues facing many young women who struggle with their identity as a person and as a woman. There is a certain social weight that comes along with womanhood – the looming responsibility of parenthood that cannot be fully separated from the act of sex. Esther wrestles with this issue as she deals with the question of dating and marriage, a near rape and the idea of what sex should mean to her. Though this isn’t the central issue of the story, it contributes to Esther’s decline.
This is a well-written, compelling story. Written in 1962, this novel wasn’t published in the US until 1971, several years after Plath’s death by suicide. This novel has an autobiographical feel to it, especially in light of what transpired in Plath’s life and death.
While this book didn’t completely wow me, I did enjoy it. It made me think about how we all experience life from the limited perspective of our own minds. We’re locked up in our own heads, and nothing makes sense except within the framework of our flawed understanding.