Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Publication date: 1963
Esther Greenwood wins a scholarship to work as an intern on a New York fashion magazine, and hopes to subsequently pursue a career in writing. When this does not take off as hoped, she spirals into depression; the novel then charts her experience of mental illness within the psychiatric hospital system.
Where did I get hold of the book?
This one was from the public library.
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
Some time earlier in the year I became very aware that a lot of the books I’d picked for 2016’s Book Diaries were written by (predominantly American) men. This came to a head when I read On the Road, which describes the experiences of young men travelling – and what I hadn’t realised was that some of the characters indulge in these road trips during college vacations.
I realised I’d read far more about the college experiences of men than women, and so The Bell Jar was a refreshing change in this respect. In it I got to see more of how women approached this time in their lives – and, specifically, what restrictions they faced that were not placed on men. For example, Esther and her fellow magazine interns live in a women-only hotel: even the (male) doctor who attends them when they become ill after a food poisoning outbreak suggests that he is only permitted to be there because of the urgency of the situation.
Towards the end of the novel, Esther visits a doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm, in an attempt to free herself from the limitations that a sexual relationship would otherwise threaten her with (pregnancy, marriage to the wrong man). This was a salutary reminder of the impact birth control had on the lives of women who wanted to be more than just a wife and mother.
How did it make me see the world differently?
Given the above, it is not surprising that I found myself with a renewed appreciation of all the advances that have been made by feminism over the decades. Esther’s experiences are already an improvement on earlier times, but 50+ years on from the publication of the novel I am able to pursue a career of my choosing, I am able to live happily child free, and my bank account is mine to do with as I wish.
This is all the more meaningful as I related quite strongly to Esther’s experiences of mental illness, having suffered from depression for a large part of my life (although the extent of mine was nowhere near as extreme as hers). As she talks about her early academic success, her ability to put on a competent face when inside she is struggling, and her difficulty in finding her place in the world as this period of her life draws to a close, I heard uncanny echoes of my own path through life – with the difference that I, now, have many more options available to me.
That said, we still have a long way to go. I recall going to see a (male) doctor, sometime in my mid-twenties, and telling him I thought I was depressed. (My experiences over subsequent years would come to bear this out.) His response? ‘I think you’ve just got yourself into a bit of a tizzy.’
The Bell Jar is a reminder of the importance of fighting for our rights, if we are to make the most of the lives we have been given and not waste our valuable gifts. It is a tragedy that Sylvia Plath did not survive to share more of her gifts with the world.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
I put off starting this book as I thought it would be incredibly depressing; however, I have been reminded yet again not to make pre-judgements about books, as in the end I absolutely loved it! For a novel about depression and death it is remarkably full of life and vitality; Plath’s wit sparkles through, and it is the first book I’ve read since Fahrenheit 451 that I found genuinely un-put-down-able.
I’d decided to get it out of the library rather than buy it for myself, as I didn’t want to spend money on something I assumed I would find a struggle. However, I’m now determined to buy a copy to keep – and this made me realise that this would be a fitting tribute to pay to all the books I’ve read for this blog.
This year has been about trying to support the local libraries, but the idea of having an entire bookshelf (or bookcase) dedicated to my Book Diaries collection is very enticing. I will therefore go through my list and note down which books I’m not in possession of – and make an effort to acquire them.
A musical interlude
Although the Police’s Can’t Stand Losing You was the first track to come to mind for this book, I didn’t feel it had quite the right vibe; it seemed to oversimplify and even misrepresent Esther’s situation. I then started to think about the broader themes of the book rather than merely her suicide attempt, and came up with this number by James Brown.