Sylvia Plath * The Bell Jar Book Review

Trigger warning: scenes contain suicide, thoughts of self-harm and detailed thoughts on depression.

I have never read such a good introspective work musing on the nature of life, lack of purpose, sinking into depression, analysis of psychological treatments of mental disorders in the middle of the 20th century and such detailed thoughts of suicide that would put Cuelho’s Veronica decides to die to shame. What makes the book 10 times worse is knowing that Eshter – six letters – is actually Sylvia – six letters – and what you see in the book is Sylvia’s actual thoughts on suicide.

She “graduates” the asylum she was committed in the book as a whole new person, but in real life she decided she could not go on anymore, fed her kids breakfast and then put her head in the oven. “Selbstmord” – suicide. She left a grieving husband behind and two little girls. What makes it worse, I read somewhere that the dad (Ted Hughes) married eventually one of Sylvia’s old friends who also committed suicide (after killing one of the girls).

Ted Hughes’ affair with Assia Wevill

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

In May of 1962 Assia Wevill and her third husband, Canadian poet David Wevill, were invited to spend a weekend with Plath and Hughes, who were then living in the village of North Tawton in Devon, England. It was then, as Hughes later wrote in a poem, that “The dreamer in me fell in love with her,” and a few short weeks later he embarked on his affair with Assia Wevill.

A few months after meeting Assia, Plath and Hughes took a holiday in Ireland. On the fourth day, Hughes disappeared to London to meet Wevill, with whom he embarked on a 10 day trip through Spain, the same place where Plath and Hughes had honeymooned.

Upon his arrival back home, the marriage unraveled when he refused to end his affair with Wevill. Plath and Hughes separated in July of 1962. Just before and several times after, Plath attempted to end her life.

Plath lived in a flat with her children during the gloomy winter of 1962 – 1963, basically functioning as a single parent to her baby son and toddler daughter. As is well known, she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen while her children slept soundly in a room nearby.

The months between her discovery of Hughes’ affair and her death were remarkably productive, and much of the poetry she produced during this period was published posthumously.

In March 1969, Assia Wevill dragged a bed into the kitchen of her Clapham flat, dissolved sleeping tablets in a glass of water and gave the drink to her daughter (generally believed to be Hughes’ child) before finishing the rest herself. Mirroring Plath’s suicide method, she then turned on the gas stove and got into bed with her daughter; they never woke up.


The Story

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, follows a year in the life of Esther Greenwood as she descends into mental illness, resulting in suicide attempts. On the surface, Esther has everything- a successful internship at a fashion magazine in New York, a great social life with many friends- and yet she can’t stop depression overwhelming her. The poignancy of the novel is that Plath herself committed suicide just a month after it was published.

Set in the glitz and glam of 1950s New York City, our heroine Esther is the somewhat reluctant member of a group of interns for a top fashion magazine editor. She has one best friend called Doreen, a sexy extrovert who likes to be with as many men as possible and is normally described either drunk or in the process of getting drunk. Esther is a bit quieter than Doreen but not as quiet as another South girl they call rudely Cow Polyanna. Esther does not know quite yet who she is. She knows who she was, a straight A student, thinker and winner of writing awards. She does not know though where her life is going and upon returning home to the suburbs, Esther is devastated to learn she has not been accepted into the writing course she had her heart set on.

Suddenly without something to fill her time and occupy her thoughts, she starts falling into depression. She sulks in bed, refuses to learn shorthand from her mother in order to become a typist and she meditates upon the role of women in society – especially the ones who are not yet ready to marry. They can either become waitresses or secretaries.

The social expectation for Esther was to get married, have a few children, renounce her dreams and her education and become like her mother – educated but house-bound.

Imagery is used with her thinking of many figs on different branches, all representing various choices in her life, future paths that may be taken. Esther sees these all withering before her fingers even get a chance to grasp them.

She decides to write a book but stops after the first page stuck with the realisation that you would have had to experience something in order to write about it and the thing she hasn’t done is lose her virginity. She sees the world split into two types: virgins and non-virgins. She sleeps more, does not eat, does not sleep, does not wash.

After three weeks, her concerned mother recommends her going to a doctor. She is then further recommended to a psychologist – who does not do much (in my opinion) and suggests electric shocks way too early. After that went horribly wrong, Esther refuses further sessions and her mother is happy she had returned to her senses. But depression does not simply go away and she’s back in the deep black waters once again.

From the halfway point on, her descent from inaction to depression is very well described. She decides she wants to die and spends some time thinking of ways to do it. She wants to hang herself with a bathrobe cord but the house beams are built too low. She wants to slash her wrists but only cuts a surface cut on her legs and spends some time watching blood run. She wants to drown herself in the sea but can’t go that far due to a kid that was sitting on the beach. She finally takes some of her mother’s sleeping pills but they manage to bring her back. The pills do leave her with some sort of a disfigurement as she throws the mirror she begged the nurse to have. I assumed that the disfigurement came from her falling down: “Then a great, hard weight smashed against my cheek like a stone wall” which is presumable some rubble, and then “A chisel cracked down on my eye, and a slit of light opened.”

She is committed to an asylum, goes to therapy, meets other clinically depressed people including Joan- who we don’t actually know whether is a real person or a person she had materialised in order to make thoughts of her deep desire to die.

And although the final lines of the book are open-ended, I felt that it was positive and that Esther was on the right track. Her actions in the closing chapters had been self-directed and about achieving things for herself – the opposite of the frozen inertia that defined the slump into depression.

The Loss of Virginity

Esther’s status as a woman is always placed in doubt as she never had sex. She tried to have sex with her first boyfriend, Buddy, but felt that his experienced past compared to her inexperience was too much to handle and she felt betrayed by his initial gentleman’s appearance when she felt that he was despoiled by a waitress he had intercourse with.

The other boyfriends she had did not last very long and Doreen’s attempts to set her up with various men were usually discounted by Esther. The men were too short, to stubby, too eager to take and not give and one instance ends with a near-rape situation. She obsesses over her virginity, sees it as a burden, and considers a ritualistic and tribal removal of her vestigial innocence. The only risk that she can foresee is a situation where she would be pregnant after a casual encounter.  That’s when she decides she no longer wants to live with that risk and on a day out from the hospital, she goes and has one of the old-style diaphragms set up. She then meets a perfectly handsome and intelligent maths teacher and she has sex with him (he could have been anyone off the street as her intent was to seduce and disappear after the act).

The issue that dumbfounded me was the result of the first sexual experience. She bled a lot. So much that she had to be taken to an emergency room where the doctor only explained that he has seen this before and knows how to fix it. The heavy hemorrhage is not explained but is treated as a symbolic pass to womanhood where all the evils within have been washed out.

She then proceeds to be released from the ward as a healed woman. (No longer hysterical and depressed).

What happened afterwards, when she began to hemorrhage, is much more important (in my opinion). She understood that she was losing too much blood and needed medical attention, but rather than using her injury as a catalyst for ending her life as she most likely would have done if the situation would have occurred a couple months prior, she chose to seek out help. This moment gives us conformation that Esther has regained her will to live and symbolizes the light at the end of an obstacle rich, suicide inducing tunnel.


The book can stand as an accurate description of clinical depression. When depressed, you can’t find the energy or will to do the most simple things like take a shower. Focusing on tasks such as reading or watching TV become impossible because you just don’t seem to have the ability to keep your mind on them for long enough. Morbid or dark thoughts are on repeat in your brain and you just don’t care enough to form any attachments or relationships with people. It seems her depression started with the death of her father at age 9 (she states she hasn’t been truly happy since) and slowly progressed until her return home from New York where she has a full on mental break down. This is the part that would seem fast, but that is how break down’s are. They come on suddenly and are quite debilitating. If you can relate to depression then it is easier to see the signs and symptoms in her earlier experiences in the story.

The bell jar is a metaphor for her depression. It covers her, keeps her isolated from the world and distorts her view of life. She also says “stewing in my own sour air” under the jar meaning she is trapped in her depressive thoughts.

The Hate for the Mother

Over and over we see Esther interact with her mother. We see Esther going to a psychiatrist and then we see the mother go in as well and come out crying. She obviously has been blamed for Esther’s condition by her primary doctor. We see Esther throwing away roses she got on her birthday from her mother. Nobody really visits her and she likes the isolation.  I couldn’t understand why she hated her mother so badly. I felt like her mother showed genuine signs of concern and I was confused as to why Esther threw away her flowers.

Sometimes it’s easiest to say you hate someone rather than explain why what they are doing or saying is hurtful to you. Every symptom or problem Esther claims to have, her mother immediately dismisses it with a “that’s impossible” or “there’s no way that happened” or “it’s probably not as bad as all that.” Even when a doctor verifies Esther’s claims and says she must go to a hospital to get treatments, her mother acts as if it’s not happening and refuses to talk to Esther about the issue at hand. She calls the other residents of Doctor Gordon’s hospital “Those awful dead people at that hospital” and follows that up with “I knew you’d decide to be all right again” as if Esther was just acting up and as soon as she decided to feel better, all of the problems would go away. She constantly does this throughout the book and every time she visits Esther or talks about Esther’s illness, she somehow brings it back to herself, at one point asking if it’s her “fault” that Esther is like this. The way she dismisses, avoids, or blames herself only makes Esther’s condition worse because she never really accepts Esther’s problems and would rather hide them than actually help.

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