I’ve always wondered why Sylvia Plath killed herself in such a gruesome way. I took up her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” hoping to get an insight on what really ran in her mind and why. I have to admit I still don’t understand why she became depressed.
What really inspired me to read more of her works were these lines:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”
I have never come across anybody who sees dying as an art and was amazed that something unpleasant and frightening as dying could be considered as an art. I was all the more dumbfounded to understand that Plath thought herself to be an expert in dying. Plath’s works all portray her unique way with words. The images and the ideas she projects through her poems have a bluntness that unsettles the reader.
The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel that was published by Sylvia Plath in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. This novel traces Plath’s descent into insanity. Esther’s experiences mirrors Plath’s own experiences.
Esther Greenwood, a brilliant girl from Massachusetts, having won a fashion magazine contest is selected for a summer internship programe with eleven other girls in a fashion magazine in New York for a month. Despite the envy of her friends and acquaintances she isn’t happy with her job, with the new clothes, or with the free tickets to ballets, fashion shows, and passes for hair styling at expensive salons. Esther stays in Amazon, an all-women hotel, along with the other girls who won the magazine contest. She befriends the beautiful and cynical Doreen who likes to live a wild, carefree life. The night before her departure to her hometown, she accompanies Doreen to a party and narrowly escapes being raped by her blind date.
She boards a train to Massachusetts wearing Doreen’s clothes and still retaining the streaks of blood on her cheeks which are the marks of physical assault of the night before. She doesn’t wash off the smudges of blood on her cheeks as they “seemed touching, and rather spectacular”.On reaching Massachusetts, her mother immediately informs her that she isn’t selected for the writing course she had applied for earlier. Dejected , she tries to think of ways to continue her literary career and finally decides to write a novel. But Esther puts aside her typewriter as she realizes that she has no notable experiences to write about.
As Esther attempts to complete her thesis on ‘Finnegans Wake’ she experiences her first symptom of depression: The letters seem to jump out of the page and grow barbs and horns and she is unable to read. This disturbs her, and she is unable to sleep or eat. Her Aunt Teresa asks her to meet Dr.Gordon, a psychiatrist. Under his care, Esther undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, but she is unable to ward off her suicidal tendencies. She tries to kill herself numerous times, but her courage deserts her when it comes to slitting her wrists, or drowning herself in the beach or even hanging herself. Finally after a trip to her father’s grave, Esther hides in the breezeway in the cellar of her house and gulps down more than fifty sleeping pills. Unfortunately for her, she is discovered three days later and is rushed to a hospital. Days later she is transferred to the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Soon after, she is taken to a private mental hospital by Philomena Guinea, her benefactress who had helped her with her college expenses. The rest of the story is about how Esther recovers from her depression under Dr.Nolan’s treatment, just in time to resume her college education.
The novel begins with Esther describing the summer when everything slips out of her control. She says that it was the summer when the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. In the very first line the reader is made to imagine something brutal and unpleasant. In The second paragraph, she says that she keeps seeing the head of a cadaver wherever she goes– “I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar. The reader cannot but agree with the protagonist’s presumption that “something was wrong” with her that summer.
Esther initially admires Doreen, a beautiful girl from a society girl’s college who had also won the fashion contest. Doreen impresses Esther with her impeccable taste in fashion and her sarcastic remarks of everyone around them. One night Esther returns to her hotel room leaving a drunk Doreen in Lenny’s apartment ( a disc jockey they had met a few hours back) when she realizes that Doreen wants to spend her night there. Once Esther returns to her room she feels depressed. She says, “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence”. She fears the phone in her room in the hotel will never ring, and that she will always be alone.
Later that night when Doreen falls on her own puddle of puke in front of Esther’s room, the latter decides that she will bear with Doreen, but deep down she will have nothing to do with her. Esther seems to be clueless about whom she should consider as a friend but this doesn’t stop her from being constantly critical of everyone around her. Even though she is a cynic like Doreen, she lacks her friend’s confident manner. After a depressing and unproductive stay in New York, she returns home to the news that she is not selected for the writing course. Esther, who had expected a letter of acceptance is shocked and feels that her brilliant academic career has taken a turn for the worse. All the words of discouragement she had heard in her life comes back to her and sucks out her desire to live.
Esther’s mother struggles to find out the sudden change in her daughter’s behaviour. When Esther is hospitalized in the private hospital, she worries that she might have unknowingly driven her daughter crazy. Esther confesses to Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother. She looks down on her mother as she follows the conventional way of life and never dares to rebel.
Throughout the novel Esther recalls her time with Buddy Willard, her college-sweetheart; in the initial rosy days of their relationship she had been crazy about him, but later realizes that he is stupid and a hypocrite. She disagrees with Buddy when he says that poetry is “dust”. During her time with Buddy, she never openly expresses her opinions to Buddy, but merely nods at whatever he says. It is only after she comes to know of Buddy’s affair with a waitress, she speaks her mind. Esther is against the unwritten law that a woman should be pure for her husband for whom purity is optional. She says, “ I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not”.
Plath uses the image of a bell jar to describe her mental state. She feels trapped within her own self and alienated from the outside world. The novel ends with the metaphor of the bell jar suspended in the air, freeing Esther from her mental prison, but Esther is not too optimistic of her future.
” To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?
I did not like Esther and I doubt that anyone would like a person who finds fault with everything. Even before her downward spiral, she doesn’t seem to be a likeable character. The Bell Jar is a very depressing novel. Plath’s unique choice of words and comparisons paint a very scary and gloomy picture of her life. It is depressing in a way that I feared that Esther’s depression would slip from the pages and creep into me. I felt empty and uncomfortable after reading the novel. I would recommend this novel only for people who are strong enough to go through a stage-by-stage nervous breakdown, without really being affected by it (psychological fiction readers I guess). This book oozes with pessimism. Nevertheless, this is a semi-autobiography, so , I can’t help but be impressed by the brutally honest account of a part of Plath’s life.