Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Bell Jar

"The Bell Jar" is the first and only novel by Sylvia Plath, originally published in Europe under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963. It was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1966. The novel is semi-autobiographical and deals honestly and poignantly with the subject of mental illness.

The book tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a college student from Massachusetts who wins a fashion magazine contest and wins a month long internship at a fashion magazine in New York. While in New York, Esther is lost and confused, unsure of her own feelings and thoughts, and fully aware of her own disconcerting mental state. In relating stories of the parties, gifts and experiences in New York she seems bewildered by her own ambivalence to life around her. She states "Look what can happen in this country, they'd say. A girl lives in some out-of-the way town for nineteen years, so poor she can't afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn't steering anything, not even myself...I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."

After returning home, Esther's condition worsens, becoming so depressed that she can't sleep, can't eat, can't write and supposedly can't even read--though she states that the only thing she could read was abnormal psychology books. She describes feeling as if trapped under a bell jar with the air stifling and the view distorted, "stewing in my own sour air." After her mom brings her to a psychiatrist who performs shock therapy, she is left further traumatized by the experience and she decides that the best step would be to commit suicide. After a nearly successful suicide attempt, Esther is hospitalized at a state hospital but later her benefactress Philomena Guinea, pays to have her transferred to a private mental hospital. There she meets a female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, whom she connects with and grows to trust. After stops and starts in her recovery, Dr. Nolan decides to perform shock therapy again, and this time with the procedure done correctly, it actually helps. Esther relates after her first shock therapy treatment under Dr. Nolan's care "All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air."

As the story reaches it conclusion, we leave Esther with a sense of hope for her future, yet a sense of unease for what may come..."How did I know that someday--at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere--the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"

This was a well-written and unsettling book. As you read each page, especially early on, you do so on edge-constantly waiting for the shoe to drop. Knowing its just a matter of time, before Esther will have to confront her demons. Knowing that this book was semi-autobiographical and that Sylvia actually lived through these moments of fear, pain, and desolation made the book even sadder to read. I wish I could've wiped away the saddness of the story with the comforting knowledge that her real life had a happy ending, but I can't even do that, since tragically Sylvia committed suicide at the young age of 30. In spite of the chilling and sad recount, the book is definitely worth reading for its courage and honesty in dealing with what was given its time--and still is to some extent--a taboo subject.