Modern Classics: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Glimpse at Mental Illness + my Reaction)

Hi, friends. In today’s post, I’ll discuss one of the most renowned classics dealing with mental illness. I’ll give a general overview of the storyline then digress about my reaction to the book and its depiction of mental illness.

The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman named Esther Greenwood who loses grip of her sanity throughout the story. The novel begins with her working as a summer intern for a magazine and follows her college experiences from there. The actual plot feels random, but the languishing musings in her head are more intriguing; I suppose the whole point is that her behavior is mundane/ordinary while her mental state isn’t. Her outlook on life grows more cynical and jaded with time, which leads to half-hearted suicide attempts and more…[I won’t spoil the story for you.]

Themes addressed in this novel aside from mental illness include feminism and women’s roles in the mid-twentieth century. Esther’s life revolves around academic excellence for a long time, so after she graduates, she feels lost; though she wants to write a novel, she fears her lack of life experience will be an obstacle. Left with the options of becoming a wife, mother, and homemaker or pursuing a “woman’s career” (like shorthand), she meets a serious impasse in her life that helps push her over the edge, figuratively speaking.

My Perception of her Dilemmas

I relate to some of her personal dilemmas because she is an English major, which was also my university major. However, the difference between a person with depression or anxiety (Esther) and a person without it (me) became clear as much of her anguish struck me as melodramatic.

For instance, she once drew an analogy between a tree full of fruit and choosing a life path; she felt existential dread about having to choose just one, not knowing if one of the others would’ve tasted better. While it’s true that we can’t choose every life path simultaneously, her analogy is inherently flawed because we still determine our lives after choosing a life path…or, in the analogy’s terms, our own choices greatly affect how our chosen fruit tastes. Even if we stuck with her analogy, I can throw out my fruit and try another one if I so desire. Granted, I can’t go back in time, but I could still change how “my story” ends…

Being mentally sound, I approach the dilemma rationally, but to Esther, these kind of thoughts are debilitating. I wonder if this is how clinical anxiety works–feeling an unnecessary dread about every little thing but being unable to banish the tormenting thoughts. While I don’t identify with the protagonist for the most part, it was a unique, interesting experience to be transported to the head space of a mentally ill person.

This is a novel I’ll likely read again sometime to pick up on all the little subtleties.

Additional Facts

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

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

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.”

Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is considered a Roman à clef, a novel about real life overlaid with a facade of fiction. In other words, Esther is a thinly-veiled version of Plath herself. This is the only book she ever wrote, and she committed suicide soon after its 1963 publication in the UK. She was just 30 years old. The novel was released in the US in 1971 and has been translated into twelve languages.

Thanks for reading! Have you read or heard of this novel? If you experience(d) mental illness, how does the middle section of this post compared to your own experiences? Let me know in the comments.

16 comments

  1. Thanx for the input.

    I have not read it, but I heard of it through Fight Club. And then found it being kicked around at the mental hospital where I used to work. So, I have wondered about it some.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lily! I have struggled with depression/anxiety/PTSD off and on during my recovery. That’s why I put the suicide hotline number up on my blog because so many with TBI are prone to this. Especially, military veterans hit with PTSD from their brain injury. I think it’s great that this author brings awareness to the devastating effects of mental illness.
    Much love ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Viv! I didn’t know that people with TBI are suicide-prone, but good to know. I’m glad people are working to break down stigma around mental illness. I bet this is one of the first novels to depict mental illness in a realistic or relatable way.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, it’s sad that she wasn’t around long enough to see how far her book wound up reaching. Then again, her committing suicide shortly after publishing it is part of the…ehh…”mythical” quality about this book, for lack of a better term.

      Liked by 1 person

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