“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath


I was astonished when I found out that Sylvia Plath’s brilliant novel “The Bell Jar” is actually a biographical novel, exploring the depths of the human mind and tracing the cause for the author’s stay in an asylum. It is one of the few books (if not the only one) I have encountered which actually deals with the consciousness, instead of the subconscious or the soul. Although a whit gloom and morbid, it is a cornucopia of hope, freedom, new beginnings and intermittent happy endings.

As John Green put it in “Paper Towns”: “I’m not saying that everything is survivable. Just that everything except the last thing is.”

“The Bell Jar” is a first-person narrative. It revolves around a nineteen-year-old girl, called Esther Greenwood, who comes from a small town in the suburbs of Boston but harbors grandiose dreams and desires. As every worthwhile story about a small girl in a big world, it begins in the city.

Esther earns a summer internship in an eminent New York magazine for which she has been yearning for years. However, Manhattan, journalism, the libertine way of life and she, herself, fail to live up to her expectations. She discovers that a certain place or a particular experience never alters you or impels you to see your surroundings differently. Her sojourn in the ostentatious hotel “Amazon” pushes her over the verge of a mental breakdown.

As despair, anxiety and depression seize her, Esther’s messed-up inner world opens up for us through peculiar connotations and vivid retrospections. Her principles and misgivings become tell-tale signs of the cause of her state of mind.

Esther is an intransigent feminist, but nonetheless a paper girl. Even though she wishes to defy the common conventions such as marriage, motherhood and a patriarchal world, the contrast between her demeanour and her thoughts is startling. She dreams of and alleges stuff she knows she does not want to do in order to make the world and herself resemble the perfect image she bears. This duplicity tears her asunder. Her freedom and the plethora of possibilities, spread out before her, encumber her. She is always in a quandary, struggling between the stereotypic, what the others expect and what she thinks she may want.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Throughout the whole novel Esther Greenwood is striving for emancipation. From hers and other’s expectations. From conservative mores. From society’s pressure. From the patriarchate. From the enormity and unattainability of her own dreams. From the fetters of her human, mortal self.

“The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket”

By breaking down, Esther cleanses herself. She reassembles the shattered visions and prepares to start a new. She realizes that the world is what you make of it. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her first published poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song”: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. / I think I made you up inside my head.”

The bell jar is not merely depression or anxiety. It is the privacy and confinement of our minds. It is a prison from which you could never break away. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whomever you pretend to be, you are inevitably going to be locked in that claustrophobic cell.

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

We are all jailbirds in that sense – birds with trimmed wings and battered feathers. We gradually lose our effervescence in longing for the sun’s genuine embrace for we are confined in an indestructible bell jar. We contemplate the infinite horizon though transparent glass. The image of ourselves in the world is just a reflection off the walls of the jar.

“The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life”

Each and everyone one of us can sympathize with Esther Greenwood. We have all been down the same road hundreds of times, propelled by existential crisis, mid-life crisis, or self-attrition, even if we didn’t need to undergo electroshock therapy. So don’t wait until the figs decay and plop on the ground, but start reading it now!