I read The Bell Jar this summer somewhat accidentally; two people traveling with me happened to read it and vehemently disagreed on it, so naturally I felt curious and wanted to participate in the arguing.
I was fairly surprised by how relatable this book was (plus for whatever reason, I’ve always associated Sylvia Plath with 1800s Edgar Allan Poe era, so I also get surprised when she know what telephones are). The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, describing the life of Esther, a young woman in the 1960s with ambitions of becoming a writer and who ultimately faces severe depression. So much of Esther’s story is relevant to today. She talks about the double standards men and women experience, and her desire to get involved with a man but her equally overwhelming fear of becoming pregnant and being burdened with children and marriage.
Moreover, I think the depiction of Esther’s depression is nothing short of outstanding. Plath magnifies the thoughts and feelings that everyone has – feelings of inadequacy, of being left out, of indecision and inertia, of wanting to do something brilliant but not knowing where to start. In this way, Esther’s breakdown is hardly foreign at all, and it is much easier to understand and to relate to the distorted viewpoint of the world and the struggle of recovery.
Back to my traveling companions, their arguments can be summed up as this:
Companion #1: “Wow, what an insightful look into mental illness!”
Companion #2: “This was too sad and too self-indulgent to get anything out of!”
I fall into the former’s camp and tend to think that the latter is missing a lot of the point. Mental illness does not mean a few bad days and then spontaneous resolution with just a little pep talk and reminder of the good things, and to portray Esther’s life as anything like that would have unfairly cheapened the daily struggle of many people, including Sylvia Plath.