My mother smiled. "I know my baby wasn't like that."
I looked at her. "Like what?"
"Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital." She paused. "I knew you'd decide to be all right again."
In 1963, a novel called ‘The Bell Jar’ was published and attributed to a little-known writer named Victoria Lucas, though was later revealed to be a mere pseudonym of Sylvia Plath, the poet and one-time author whose first and last book was published for the first time in the UK a month before she committed suicide. It concerns the descent of heroine Esther Greenwood (a pretty, ambitious woman trying to make her way in Manhattan) into insanity, with numerous suicide attempts and a stint in a mental hospital. Widely considered a roman à clef that parallels Plath’s own difficulties with clinical depression, she is thought to have portrayed Esther on herself- bred in the suburbs of Boston, she gets an internship at a magazine in New York though is under whelmed with the glamorous lifestyle that those around her seem to be obsessed with. She enjoys writing poems, though toys with the idea of writing a novel in her spare time, another similarity between Plath and her heroine and slowly but surely she succumbs to mental illness, self-harm and a few suicide attempts in the process.
This may seem to be quite a daunting concept for a book to read, though I can safely say that it wasn’t nearly as depressing as I thought it might be. The subject matter is quite dark but is told with a certain amount of charisma from Esther, who won me over in the first few chapters with her determination and the fact that she’s relatable to anyone who has ever felt similar emotions. Occasionally distressing, Esther’s journey is also filled with rites-of-passages in particular for women, including losing virginity; making new friends; and trying to hang herself, drown herself and overdose on drugs. You know, the usual. It’s often been compared to J. D Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” in terms of being the quintessential coming of age novel, though more feminine and is seen as a symbol for teenaged angst. However, I think that lots of people of lots of different ages and walks on life can take something different from the black comedy and poignant drama at the heart of “The Bell Jar”- friendships, sadness, depression, making the most of a bad situation and lots of other valuable lessons.
Life in the bell jar, it seems, is hard though Esther continues to struggle through, slowly beginning to realize the effect her condition has on the people around her, from her friend to her mentor to her on/off boyfriend Buddy. Sylvia Plath’s poetic prose also helps the story along, giving it a haunting quality that feels timeless and honest at the same time. That Plath can understand what the character is going through makes it all the more believable and the references of the time (the Rosenberg’s execution, the Presidency etc.) also helps give it the believable feel that makes it so likeable. These people could be real, and are styled on real characters, so to have them leap off the page in such a way is gripping and something you rarely find in some books. It’s even more scathingly sad considering that Sylvia Plath killed herself not too long after, barely long enough to realise the scope of the legacy she’d left behind.
And so we see life in the bell jar- and will never be the same for it.
“The Bell Jar” is available on Amazon in paperback (£3.87) and on Kindle (£3. 67)