I always shy away from reviewing classics because, as a teenager, I feel like I’m not qualified enough talk about these great works of literature. But, I love talking about books, I love (most) classics and I loved The Bell Jar. Here’s why.
Name: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into serious depression as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take her aspirations seriously.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The novel is partially based on Plath’s own life and descent into mental illness, and has become a modern classic.
The Bell Jar was akin to time travelling to the heart of 1950s society. It’s so interesting to see how much has changed in society, and so scary to see how far we have to go. What surprised me first was how much chattier and more informal the writing style was, and it made me really feel for Esther. In was rooting for her throughout the book. She feels like a relatable character to anyone a little lost with their direction in life and the reader gets to really know her, making her deterioration in mental health all the more tragic.
The first part of the book is mostly memories and anecdotes, and while simply written, there are some beautiful moments of writing. The effort to understand Plath’s metaphors actually pays off (unlike my nemesis The Great Gatsby!). I’d love to analyse it in an English class, it would be the sort of classic I can stand! My interpretation is that there’s almost a volta that splits the book in two – after Esther leaves New York, the writing becomes much more disjointed and focusing on random events that don’t appear that meaningful. I also thought it was interesting how it opens with the electrocution of the Rosenburgs (foreshadowing?) and the trial was interspersed throughout the book. The apathy their deaths were met with gave me the chills. The second half of the book gets quite dark and heavy, so check trigger warnings before trying this book. Do you agree? What’s your interpretation? Let me know in the comments!
“Because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”– THE BELL JAR
In some ways it reinforced, and in others destroyed, my previous view of 1950s society. Honestly, the casual way it discussed suicide and sex shocked me because I had thought these topics would have been total taboo. As I said, the tone is casual and chatty, making the book super easy to read – refreshing for a classic! The conversational way it approached these topics was unexpected.
However, despite expecting it, the treatment of Esther and women in the story made me so angry. It’s interesting (and horrifying) to see the number of similarities between 50s and todays society, whether in regards to mental health, marriage, healthcare and sexual assault. There were a few comments that were a product of its time (let’s never use similes about race, Sylvia) but aside from that, there were moments where The Bell Jar could be describing today’s society.
“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.”– A long quote but my favourite. It really resonated with me.
To finish, this does not feel like a novel that’s nearly 60 years old. As a teenager, it felt refreshing to have such an understandable classic with a complex, relatable female character as the lead. You’re drip fed these really ominous statements and I loved the cohesion between chapters – I genuinely raced through this book and couldn’t put it down. If you’re looking for a short classic, especially around International Women’s Day, give The Bell Jar a go! You won’t regret it.
Have you read The Bell Jar? Are there any books you’ve reading for International Women’s Day? Let me know in the comments!