Before we start, just a quick reminder that ‘The Bell Jar’ discusses, very honestly, in depth, mental illness. Remember your own self-care comes first when we’re discussing the book, and if you feel any of us (i.e. me) are being ignorant in how we discuss it, if you can, please tell us. On that note, here goes….!
I first read the Bell Jar in my final year of university. Despite being really interested in women’s history, and gender history, I would never have called myself a feminist and knew embarrassingly little about the issues I think are so important today. All I had was a vague sense of unease about my future as a woman, unable to explain it any further than that. Then I found a copy of the Bell Jar in a dusty library while revising for my finals and was immediately hooked. This was my feminist awakening, putting my fears into words.
I really related to Esther Greenwood. As a disclaimer, I don’t have mental health issues so I will leave it to others to talk about that part of the book much more eloquently than I ever could. But Esther’s descent into mental illness, her fears and thoughts in that summer in New York and then when she returned home really resonated with me. It was this idea of academic achievement as a sense of identity that resonated with me – of having these ambitions that just are going to happen, and not really thinking about what might happen if it all fell through. Added to this, the feeling that no matter what you want, what you aim for, you are working within this oppressive atmosphere of the way women were / are expected to behave, the ambitions they are meant to have. So for me, the Bell Jar was this jar of sexual oppression, this stifling atmosphere. I have heard others say that for them, it represented depression and despair.
It’s a fantastically written book, in my opinion, really making the reader identify with the characters – it is so real, like the words just flowed onto the page. And yet it is so cleverly written – I didn’t notice this myself but just had someone point out that the very first sentence contains a reference to electricity: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs’. And the themes of confinement and imprisonment run through the whole book, even before she is sectioned.
When I re-read the book, I was 100% a feminist. And, three years on from my finals at university, I had a job offer, I had a concrete path in life. The book didn’t resonate quite so deeply with me as it did on that first read. But I also knew more about Sylvia Plath’s life, and a little bit more about mental illness, and so perhaps I was reading from a less selfish perspective. I found it devastating, but I still loved it.
I am really interested in learning what other readers think about the mental illness aspect to the book. Is it as true to life as I think it is? Did it resonate with you? And if you don’t have mental health problems, did you, as I did, still associate yourself with Esther Greenwood? Do you think it is more devastating, that it has more impact, when you know it was written by Sylvia Plath? (As it was first published under a pseudonym). What do you think the ‘Bell Jar’ of the title represents? And as always, if you didn’t like the book, tell us why not!