Review | The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things – grades, boyfriend, looks, career – and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself enclosed in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality.

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There’s not much about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s amazing how relevant this book still is when it comes to what women want for themselves, what society expects from and wants for them, and the confused state this leaves them in.

Esther’s not quite feeling happy and satisfied since the beginning of Plath’s only novel, and the very ominous “I was supposed to be having the time of my life” immediately creates a feeling of unease. Her descent into depression is honestly depicted and brutal; it creates a knot in your stomach because it is so personal and relatable.

The struggle with herself and her reluctant, but fiercely human survival instincts (“[…] my heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my ears. I am I am I am”), the expectations, the desire for independence, the frustration and the eventual numbness is not other-worldly. Instead, it is intimate and honest.

The road to recovery is slow, and Esther’s suspiciousness towards her support system and her own self is masterfully portrayed by someone who has clearly been through the experience. “How did [she] know that someday […] the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

I wish I had studied this book at uni, so I could write essays on Plath’s masterpiece and its themes of feminism and depression. But, then again, I would not have been mentally or emotionally ready for it.

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.

A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

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