The Bell Jar – Discussion Post

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! 

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27 responses to “The Bell Jar – Discussion Post

  1. Thanks Alice, a great post, where should I start?

    I’d like to repeat the good advice of putting your own selfcare first, as this really is a bare account of mental health issues and suicide attempts.

    Also the same disclaimer about mental health.

    I know this is a very well known book, but I read it for the first time a month ago, then reread it today all in one go, to remind myself. I liked the way it was written, looking backwards, rather than in real time, as it meant that the story could be told how she wanted it to be hold, holding back information, missing out days or weeks.
    I love her use of language, the descriptions were beautiful, and I agree with Alice when she says it’s cleverly written and the words flow, of course the subject matter isn’t as easy read, but the way it’s written makes it easier to read.

  2. I was wondering – how important do you think the idea of gender, of being a woman is in this book? As the more I think of it, being older than when I first read it, I see it as a completely honest portrayal of mental illness (more and more after I learnt about Sylvia Plath herself) – and not just relating to the oppressive effects of being a woman in that society. Is her mental illness made worse because of the oppression she faces? As when I first read the book, it just so completely chimed with this unnamed oppression I was feeling about my future that I only really saw it that way.

    • I think it’s really important, I think it contributes so much to her breakdown, as she realises about it, and sees the double standards applied to men and women, she deteriorates further. It is so completely honest, and so pragmatic, so matter of fact about it.

  3. As you know, I have a variety of mental health problems.

    I. Loved. This. Book. I wish I had read it years ago, because I kept nodding along in recognition about how the patriarchy is destroying this young woman, about what the men in her life are doing to her. And about how high academic success can almost set you up to fail, how you’re expected to do all these things but sometimes the path of HOW to isn’t clear. The feeling of having all these ideas and goals and desires and having NO IDEA how to implement them is one that is so painfully familiar to me.

    The second half of the book was absolutely brutal to read. I felt it was extremely true to life, yes – a lot of what Esther was talking about feeling deeply resonated with me, and the stuff that didn’t I recognised from other mentally ill people I know. As horrific as it is to read, I think it’d be a great read for people who want to know ‘what it’s like’ to feel your mind falling apart – and make no mistake, Esther is excrutiatingly aware of the fact that she’s drowning.

    And the writing…Oh, the first sentence (even without the rest of the book as context – but as you say, the theme of electricity actually runs throughout) is fucking FLAWLESS. Her writing is so…precise and clear and not overly emotional at all, but yet still manages to deliver gut-punches of emotion.

    What really sits with me is how *not* dated the book is, to be honest. The casual racism is more overt than a moden novel like this might be, and of course women’s employment and college doesn’t work in precisely the same way anymore, but the general feelings and struggles that Esther goes through are still so relevant. This is STILL HAPPENING. And what does that say about how much we’ve progressed as a society in the last 50 years?

    I don’t know a huge amount about Plath’s life – just the highlights, really. I wonder if, if one didn’t know this was semi-autobiographical, it would sit differently? I’m not sure. As I said, it felt so very, very True that even if Plath hadn’t experienced events like this herself it almost wouldn’t matter. If that makes sense.

    As I said, the second half of the book is really hard to read – the ECT sections, and the sections chronicalling her SH and suicide attempts are triggery and distressing in the extreme. Especially the ECT tbh, because it’s one of those things (like being sectioned) that I am utterly terrified of, at a very deep, gut level. So I might not be able to participate a lot in this discussion, but I wanted to give these thoughts as your Resident Crazy Person ;]

    • I agree so entirely about how un-dated it is. It is very interesting which books stand the test of time and I often find they are ones about oppression, which is sad as it just shows how little has changed.

    • Yes – to all of that.
      There’s this path set out for you, it used to be marriage and kids, now it’s university, marriage and kids, but what if you don’t want to follow it? What if you can’t? The stress of not conforming to the path can be so heavy.
      It was such a vivid telling of her descent, so sad, and oh she certainly knows, and that makes it even harder. She tries, she has these ideas, to write a novel, but she can’t, and it’s so hard to watch.
      Yes, other than the racism, everything else rang true, so true. How can it be that we’re still treading that path?

  4. Oh, also! I really liked how the writing became more disjointed through the second half, with flashbacks happening faster and jumps between time being more abrupt – thought it was a v good reflection of her unravelling mental state.

  5. I found the main theme to be about the way a woman was restricted in 1950’s society. Esther is clever, has worked hard, has won prizes, yet it is assumed that she will just marry, not continue working on her poetry. Of course this book focuses so much on her deteriorating mental health, and I think that’s caused by the weight of expectation on her to follow a set path, when she has no desire to. She doesn’t wish to marry, and after seeing childbirth is traumatised (something I can identify with, definately) and says that the drugs that reduce pain in childbirth sound ‘just like the sort of drug a man would invent’ so that then the woman forgets the pain, and has another child.

    • Ha yeah I read that bit and just thought YES EXACTLY! But – I guess my question / worry is, can mental illness be caused by just being a woman? Obviously in the case of PTSD it can be, the oppressions we face can cause mental illness. But this is a brain thing really rather than just ‘not coping very well’ with oppression (which is how one review I read put it, ugh).

      • personally i think it’s a combination – some people have a predisposition to mental illness, and the way we’re treated in society can ‘trigger’ that? does that make sense?

        • ah yes. That does make sense, and also kind of explained why I felt the whole first part of the book (and your first paragraph above, exactly) just resonated with me so strongly. And yet I didn’t suffer the way Esther did.

  6. Or maybe it’s more about two things: 1) how women were treated / the society women had to live in and 2) how the mentally ill were treated at that time. And she doesn’t mean to really show any causation. It reminded me a bit of Women on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy in its descriptions of the treatment of mentally ill women. So horrendous;

  7. I found this book really sad, the way she is confused, and doubts herself. When Constantin takes her to the UN to see the interpreters she starts making a list of all the things she can’t do. When she tries to pick up the phone to call Jody back she physically cant. Is that related to her mental health?
    I found it sad that when she meets Dr Gordon, her first psychiatrist, she is pleased and think she is clever that she has hidden the scraps of paper showing her failed attempts at handwriting from him, thinking she is in control of the situation because then he doesn’t know about them.
    I found her to be paranoid too, when she is in Caplan after she firsts meets Dr Nolan she is then in her room, when lots of male doctors come in, and she thinks it is a test to see if she noticed there was too many of them. There were lots of bits like this, where she thought she was being tested. So sad.

    • those bits were really interesting to me, because on the one hand it *did* seem paranoid. But on the other, they almost felt like rational fears to me, having experienced the way men in the mental health industry treat female patients. Even if they weren’t actually true, I could very much relate to what she was feeling – I knew EXACTLY WHY she would think those things.

      • My impression was paranoia as well, a symptom of her mental illness – the unreliable narrator i guess. This comes through too when she tries to hide the bits of paper, as you say, she thinks she’s so clever, but we as the reader can see that perhaps that isn’t the best thing to do?

        I find it really interesting, Stilli, that you said it felt like they were rational fears. When I re-read (after Woman on the Edge of Time) I saw it much less as paranoia. As you say, I could see exactly why she would think that and that it could well be an entirely rational thought rather than a sympton of mental illness!

        • It’s strange, because on the one hand – yes, it was very clearly paranoia, I felt that was evident from the writing. But on the other, I understand it. Er. That might make me sound like a total crazy person. Which I am, but you know. It’s like…

          Do you ever get that feeling that you’re *completely on display* and a man/men are watching your every move and analysing every little thing you do, just waiting for you to mess up so they can pounce and go ‘aha! you see! you’re just a silly little woman!’? Talking to my male psychiatrist feels like that.

          • I do get that feeling sometimes 😦 But never in relation to a mental health issue, which is so sad, that on some thing that you are vulnerable and seeking help, that there is someone there doing that. Although I presume not all female psychiatrists are automatically fantastic. It’s this historical conflation of ‘hysterical women’ that we still can’t seem able to shake off. I’m so sorry you experience that 😦

          • I actually haven’t yet had a female shrink! And to be fair, the male psychologist who diagnosed me was fantastic. My shrink is very ‘old school’ though, which I think doesn’t help matters. Maybe I’ll get a better one when I move =]

  8. Now, as for Buddy, oh I HATE him! (spoilers in this as I go through every little thing about him I hate) He represents the typical stereotype of manliness at that time, but underneath he is horrible, and Esther soon realises that. From his first words ‘do you know what a poem is’ I HATED him, so condescending, so patronising, so damn insulting when he knows she loves and writes poems. (She says afterwards that the re-imagines the situation with her replying more forcefully, that resonated strongly with me as I often replay situations in my head with me coming off better!) 2 pages later her comes up to visit her at college, a long way, and mentions that he has actually come up for a prom with Joan, then when she responds the way you would if someone had just treated you in that way, he gets sulky and goes, but gives her an invite to a different prom. Why would he do that? Does he like her or not? Are we still playing these tired old games of tease and pretend you don’t like to get the girl? Urgh.
    Then next he takes her to see cavaders, showing off, then childbirth which traumatises her, what did he think that would achieve? Then he gets naked (actually that bit made me laugh, just picturing him standing them, trousers down, while she just thinks ‘erm, ok’), and talks about his mother washing his underwear! Then she find out he’s a liar who is not a virgin! And again, this is still so relevant, the double standards that apply to men and womens sexuality.
    Then he gets TB, (I was glad, sorry) and goes off to hospital, where she sadly has to visit him, and he proposes! Why? They hardly know each other and they don’t seem to like each other! Well, she definately doesn’t like him. I love how she tells him she never wants to get married.
    Then when she breaks her leg he seems pleased?
    Then at the end, he comes to see her, and asks if HE is the cause for her and Joans mental health, oh it’s always about him! And he wonders who she will marry now, because of course that’s the only important thing!

    • You have summed him up SO WELL Poppy! He is the textbook mansplainer imo – absolutely convinced he’s right about everything and gets miffed when women DARE talk back to him.

      • Yes! The end bit exactly – everything is always about the man. But then, some of it kind of is about him, not him personally but just maleness and femaleness. The mansplaining made me so angry, I felt so sorry for Esther but at the same time just so helpless, I’ve felt exactly like that so often!

  9. A bit of the book that resonated with me was when she saw Buddys mother making a rug out of her husbands old suits. It is lovely, then she puts it on the floor, and within days it was ‘soiled and dull’ and Esther feels that no matter how a man treats a woman before marriage, his aim is to get her married then treat her like dirt, walk her underfoot, ‘for her to flatten out underneath his feet’, a wife is simply there to do his bidding and make his life easier. GRRR! I know things have changed, but I think marriage still has some of those connotations. We know women do far far more of the housework and childcare even when they are working the same amount of hours as their husband. I know there are many kind, thoughtful men out there who do and will help, but I still think the women do more. That their role as a wife is expected to be the one who does those jobs, if not from their husband then from others and society. It puts me off marriage, even though I have a man I love, I don’t want to become his wife and lose myself.

    • It was this bit that resonated with me the most. Even though I wanted to get married, I wanted to have kids, I knew I didn’t want this, and the book just put that out right in front of me (the women’s room then took that feeling and increased it even more!!) It terrified me, both these books, the idea that you can be with a man you love, and who loves you for your intellectual abilities / abilities to hold a pint / abilities to climb a mountain (or whatever) but once you get married it all comes down to bringing up the kids and keeping a clean home. No matter how much you think you’re safe from it as you think you’ve found the ‘right’ man.

  10. It also resonated with me when she went and got contraception, I wrote ‘contraception = FREEDOM’ in my notes and underlined it vigorously! Then she says it herself, it means ‘freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, freedom from the … homes where the poor girls go’. Because it’s so true. The fear of getting pregnant and being trapped, either with the wrong person, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, it’s something that is always there for women. Giving her contraception meant giving her a chance, to go out and live without that fear. And that’s why it’s so important, and why abortion is so important too.

    • Yes! Luckily in England, as it is at the moment, we do, mainly, have that freedom. (lots of caveats to that but I am well aware that we are really lucky compared to the situation in lots of the world)

  11. Burn your bras!

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