Mental Illness, Shock Treatments, and NYC 1950s – Sylvia Plath

  • TitleThe Bell Jar
  • AuthorSylvia Plath
  • Genre: Fiction, Classic, literature, Feminism
  • Words to describe: Dark humor, sarcastic, seriocomic
  • Publication Date:  January 1963
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel by Sylvia Plath, and the only novel she wrote. The book is the musings of a college girl living on a scholarship in New York, at an all-women hotel. She’s studying writing at her college, and trying to live her life.

In the early ’50s, Esther Greenwood moves from a Boston suburb to New York City for an internship at a prominent magazine. In New York City, Esther expects to “live,” to experience all she can as a young woman in college and at the first steps of the rest of her life. She considers sleeping with men, though she somewhat muses with being a pure woman, and the double standards that exist between men and women.

She also feels shackled by the opportunities that exist for women: becoming wives and mothers. That’s the expectation, even for a college-educated girl, and she feels that is not enough for her. She thinks that men have it easy, where they can have all the “fun,” without the consequences, i.e. becoming pregnant. She’s eventually fitted for a diaphragm.

She succumbs to depression, and she undergoes shock treatment at once point, though she refuses to go back after the first session. She is nearly raped at one point, though she bloodies the man’s nose and escapes.

“If you’re going to kill yourself, how would you do it?”

Esther attempts suicide several times, includes trying to drown herself at sea. She takes a bunch of sleeping pills at another instance and then crawls into a cellar. She survives all attempts and spends time in several mental institutions, until she meets a Dr. Nolan, who provides her with psychotherapy sessions.

“…I had a razor but no warm bath.”

“That morning I had tried to hang myself. I had taken the silk cord of my mother’s yellow bathrobe as soon as she left for work and in the amber shade of the bedroom fashioned it into a knot that slipped up and down on itself. It took me a long time to do this because I was poor at knots and had no idea how to make one…”

Esther says her depression is like being being trapped in a bell jar trying to breathe. But then she decides that the shock treatment lists some of the depression, lifts the bell jar.

The story is witty and sarcastic, and has a certain comic feeling, though it’s still has a serious tone.

“I’m the only girl on the beach in a skirt and high heels.”

I thought the book was a bit slow. It certainly had a memoir-like quality, and I did find it amusing, in a nihilistic and dark way. The dark humor attracted me more than the storyline itself, and I wanted Esther to “make it,” to figure out how her life, figure out her mind, and heal from her depression.

“I hoped they’d send me to a ward with really gruesome cases.”

She was likable enough, but not someone who attracts everyone’s attention. She is intelligent and sharp, with a sharp wit, and it feels like her intellect is wasted by the limited opportunities for women in the ’50s. So the book left me with an inexplicable sadness. Still, I hoped that Esther’s treatments would work and she would be able, at the end, to return to school and live the life she wants.

The Bell Jar is considered a roman a clef, because it mirrors Plath’s own descent into mental illness, much like Esther Greenwood. Plath killed herself by sticking her head in an oven a month after the book was first published in 1963 under Plath’s pseudonym, “Victoria Lucas.” The first was first published under her true name in 1971.

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