Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath | Feminism, Isolation and 1950s Womanhood

It’s hard not to have heard of Sylvia Plath. People seem to take morbid interest in the fact that she killed herself just a month after the publication of her only novel– The Bell Jar. This book has been on my TBR for over a year, and when I finally got around to reading it, I wondered why I had waited so long.

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It’s hard not to have heard of Sylvia Plath. People seem to take morbid interest in the fact that she killed herself just a month after the publication of her only novel– The Bell Jar. This book has been on my TBR for over a year, and when I finally got around to reading it, I wondered why I had waited so long.

About the Book:

the bell jar by sylvia plath cover

Title: The Bell Jar

Author: Sylvia Plath

Published: 1963

Genre: classics, feminism, psychology/mental health

Rating: 5/5

First line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

The Premise:

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

My Thoughts:

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

Reading this book feels like stepping into a sea of suffocating grayness. You are submerged almost completely into Esther’s psyche and her hopelessness becomes your own. It is even stronger when you realize that Plath wrote this novel to be semi-autobiographical.

I was pulled into the book immediately, and I found so many of Esther’s thoughts uncomfortably relatable, especially the well-known “fig passage”, where she describes the choice paralysis she faces with regard to her future, and the feeling of life slipping away as she struggles to choose.

I also related to her desire to escape the stifling life of wife- and motherhood she sees stretching out in front of her, as becoming a housewife would not make me happy. Luckily, I live in a time and a place in which this is no longer a rigid social requirement for women.

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.”

And that leads me too…

Feminism in The Bell Jar

One of the central ideas in the novel is Esther’s aversion to getting married and thus throwing away her life and aspirations outside of motherhood.

“… I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

She fears the end of her career as a writer should she get married, and she wants a more interesting life than just raising children. Babies are frequently brought up during the course of the story, and Esther expresses scorn for her neighbor, Dodo Conway, who has six children. She wonders how such a life wouldn’t be a waste for a girl with “fifteen years of straight As.”

Plath goes further to comment on the double-standard for men and women with regard to sex and purity, using Esther’s relationship with Buddy and her encounter with Marco.

There’s also a lot of messaging about the way women have been treated in the medical system, especially women with mental illnesses. This is clear in the sections about Dr. Gordon, who ignores Esther’s pleas for help, and this actually reminds me of the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which I read last year.

We all know the expectation for women in the 1950s, and this book portrays the suffering of a nineteen-year-old who longs to be free of the role society imposes on her.

What does the first line mean?

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

It’s a very striking way to start a novel, for sure. This is a pretty famous literary first line, but it’s not entirely clear what it means. Jumping right into talking about an execution right away sets the tone for the book and actually has a lot of foreshadowing for the major themes of the story.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed via electric chair in 1953, having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, and their case is often cited when discussing anti-communist hysteria and McCarthyism in the ’50s. What does this have to do with the story of Esther Greenwood?

Well for one thing, it establishes a morbid, melancholy and unsettling mood and opening the book with death in some way prepares the reader for the themes of the rest of the story, while also foreshadowing events later in the book.

Isolation and Loneliness

“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.”

It’s in this regard that The Bell Jar especially reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye. Both novels feature a protagonist who feels like an outsider and misunderstood by society and the people around them.

I think the entire point of Doreen at the beginning of the novel was to emphasis Esther’s loneliness. When Doreen gets together with Lenny, Esther is left alone– and none of Doreen’s setup attempts go as planned. The rest of the girls at Esther’s New York internship don’t really seem to understand her either, and as the novel goes on this becomes more and more apparent.

The Writing

The writing in this book is, first of all, beautiful. There’s a distinct voice and style, which is hard to describe but definitely memorable. The flow of the story is very stream-of-consciousness, the timeline is nonlinear and at times it’s hard to work out what exactly is happening. There are times when the narrative simply jumps timeframes and you have to kind of figure out the shift.

I think, overall, this had the effect of enveloping you in Esther’s confused and desperate mental state. The Goodreads blurb says “Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies” and it is not an exaggeration.

The Verdict

This was truly an incredible, though quite disturbing, read. I would recommend this book to everyone, with the caveat that it is quite dark.

Have you read The Bell Jar? What did you think of it? Do you have anything to add to my analysis? Feel free to leave a comment! I would love to discuss the book with you.

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grayscale photograph of new york, the bell jar setting, the bell jar by sylvia plath setting
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