Year Published: 1963
Page Count: 234
Also By Plath: My thoughts after the first reading
I recently reread one of my all time favorite novels, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I read this book for the first time last year, and as soon as I finished it I knew I wanted to reread it. This time when I read it I got so much more out of it because I really related to the main character and where she is in her life.
Esther is in New York on scholarship. She is a brilliant student who aspires to be a poet after college. Although Esther has a seemingly happy and normal life, she starts to fall apart. The book follows her descent into depression and her recovery,
This book was originally published under a pseudonym and is considered to be semi-autobiographical. Plath suffered from depression herself and attempted suicide as a young woman. That element really comes across in this novel because the thoughts of Esther are so real. Her voice and thoughts are so authentic and so fluid, and they way Plath presents them they seem so rational and calm.
The first time I read this book I loved it. The writing both captivated and haunted me. One particular image that stuck in my mind was the fig tree. Esther compares her life, and the life of a young woman in general, to a fig tree. You have all of these figs you can eat; motherhood, school, a career, traveling, etc... but if you eat one that means you can not eat the rest and they just rot away into nothing. This image is so powerful and so realistic.
This book takes an honest look at gender expectations and the limits that were still placed on women in the 1960's as well as the treatment of the mentally ill during that time. Plath demonstrates the pressure on a young woman to go to school and earn a degree and then get married and abandon her dreams and her career. This novel also examines the differences in expectations placed on men and women, and the pressure of being a college student.
From the first page you are thrown into the mindset of Esther and captivated by Plath's writing. I found myself relating to Esther on many levels during this reread because I myself was starting to get burnt out with school and am also more aware of gender expectations. One of the biggest things Esther sees as unfair with the world is the fact that when women have babies they are expected to give up their careers. In this time period Esther does not have easy access to birth control, and it escalates her mental anxieties. This issue, and the others discussed in the book, are still so relevant and important.
Another factor I enjoy about Plath's works is that there tends to be common themes throughout her different works. The idea of marriage and motherhood are tackled in many of Plath's poems as well as the oppressive effect these two events can have on women.
I really can't say enough good things about this novel. Please read something by Plath. I know her poetry can be challenging or intimidating but it's so worth it. Her writing is full of imagery and her control of language is amazing.
From The Bell Jar:
"I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from another had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue."
P.S. On a superficial note, Plath was also featured in my Hot Authors post because, well, she's hot! I'll be putting together a part two soon!