Staff review by Chris Saliba
Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel remains a classic fifty years after it was first published.
Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel The Bell Jar is divided fairly evenly into two parts. The first half of the novel describes protagonist Esther Greenwood’s time as an intern at a New York women’s magazine. There’s a lot of black comedy in these scenes as Esther paints often critical portraits of her fellow students and the adult supervisors, especially the magazine’s editor Jay Cee. Esther also devotes considerable time to raking over the coals of her relationship with Buddy Willard, an all American boy who we later learn is not so squeaky clean. If anything he’s a bit creep and a jerk.
The second half sees Esther return to her home in Massachusetts. A paralysing depression that had been simmering away while she was working on Ladies’ Day magazine becomes chronic. She can’t sleep or read. Eventually she is hospitalised and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy. This later part of the novel concentrates on Esther’s fellow hospital inmates, doctors and other healthcare professionals, with their rather clinical approach.
Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. First published in the UK, it didn’t see US publication until 1971. While The Bell Jar is not explicitly critical of American culture, it is by implication. It shows America as a hothouse for creating madness. American life is all glossy surface and material abundance, but its very unreality creates mental instability for its citizens. The Bell Jar also demonstrates that the low status of women is another cause of chronic depression. Esther is so much smarter than many of the men around her, but knows she’ll always have to play second fiddle.
I’ve read The Bell Jar many times and never tire of it. The story is told simply and cleanly. Plath’s descriptive powers are those of a poet. She finds the right word and metaphor for everything. And despite the novel’s grim subject matter, it’s full of wry, sardonic humour.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Published by Faber Fiction. ISBN: 9780571308408 RRP: $24.99
To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.