The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath: A Review

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.

Writing Mental Illness: A Resource For Fiction Writers

In my current work in progress, one of my characters experiences symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and other mental illness. I want to be able to present this character with honesty and compassion, giving the reader a sense of the realities of this man’s life.

And so, I’ve been doing a little digging around the internet, trying to find the best sources for accurate information on various mental illnesses. Information including typical symptoms, first-hand accounts of what these disorders are like from the inside, as well as available treatment options.

My goal is to present this character with a sense of reality and offer an honest look at what it means to live with mental illness. I went looking for examples and resources on how to best convey my character. I found some very thoughtful insights on the subject, and thought I’d share what I found.

First I wanted to find out about mental illness in general. This website for Mental Health America includes a wide variety of resources, including a list of specific mental disorders with more detailed information on each. For example, this page on OCD. I like that it also links to other mental health organizations such as National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for even more information.

My search also led me to some resources for how to write about mental illness. Because I believe this is an issue we must address compassionately, I want to share what I found. If you find yourself writing characters with mental illness of any variety, I would encourage you to do your own research into the specifics of the disorder you are trying to portray. In the meantime, here are three articles that give helpful advice on how to (and not to) write about mental illness.

My research also started me thinking about how mental illness has been portrayed in fiction, movies and the media. And about how that portrayal impacts our societal view of mental illness. Tragic events in recent years, such as the death of actor Robin Williams, have loomed large in the media and brought an increased awareness to the realities of mental illness. However, these issues are far more common than we seem to be willing to admit, and it shouldn’t take the death of someone so famous to encourage conversations about the subject.

I went looking for examples of how mental illness has been portrayed in fiction. I found this list 11 Of The Most Realistic Portrayals of Mental Illness in Novels as well as this other list Top Ten Books Dealing With Mental Illness of specifically YA books about mental illness. To be honest, I’ve not actually read any of the books on either list, though I hope now to remedy that. If you’ve read any, and have a suggestion of where I should start, I’d welcome your input. If there are others not on these lists, I’d love to hear about those as well.

Too often media (including books and movies) have contributed to the stigma attached to mental illness, portraying those afflicted with it as dangerous or even in some cases evil. Words are powerful. And as writers, we have the responsibility to present mental illness in a fair and accurate light, not to paint it in the broad brush strokes of evil madmen. If I can stand against this trend in my small way by presenting a character and the realities of what his experience is, then I will make the effort to do so.

And on that note, here is an excerpt from my new short story, “Shattered”

Jana didn’t come to me as I expected. Night approached and I wondered if I should go to her. To be sure she was alright. But that meant going out. Outside, where the voices could not be silenced. I could feel her unhappiness. I wished I knew what troubled her. Was it Andreú? Something else? I wished she would come to me.

I paced around my tiny room in the men’s dormitory, my hand touching each talisman as I passed. I circled three times, four, five before I stopped, facing the door. I would go to her.

Before I could open my door, however, I heard the tower bells begin to ring. I’d only heard the sound one other time since coming to this place. It signaled an alarm of some kind, and summoned all residents to the main hall.

My heart raced, pounding painfully in my chest. I broke out in a clammy sweat, and I thought I might black out, or vomit. Maybe both. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t breathe. I thrust my hand into my pocket, gripped the small figure I carried there. In the shape of an owl, I had worn the thing smooth over many years. It brought little comfort to me now as the bells continued to ring.