The Bell Jar


That is the word I would use to describe Sylvia Plath’s only book.

It cannot be otherwise when you know the circumstances of her all to short life. You begin, knowing you are reading essentially an autobiography of a women who falls into the pit of depression. And you know that she did not survive.

That it paralleled her own life closely was apparent when her own mother sent a letter to the publisher lamenting that the book would hurt many people, so thinly veiled were the characters from Plath’s own life.

Given this, it is hard to read, knowing that these are real experiences, and it seems almost embarrassing to spy upon another’s  innermost agonies.

There is hardly a person who has not suffered from some sort of depressive episode at one time or another. Usually they result from events that are easily discerned, and thus the sadness and ennui is predictable and understandable.

But a good percentage have also experienced the melancholic “blues” that seem to have no source, and linger for days, and sometimes longer.

Most of us plunge forth into each day, dragging though we be, and manage somehow. We go to work and school, and we do errands and cook meals, wash clothes, change diapers and the like, all with a sadness we find hard to shake.

Sometimes we can eventually pinpoint it to a season, though we still can point to no “thing” that is the cause. In any event, we eventually work our way out, and once we do, we are never quite so concerned about it ever again. It’s uncomfortable, somewhat debilitating, but we know we will get through it.

Some few, have it much worse and have to resort to drugs which may or may not improve or stabilize the condition. And some have no relief whatsoever.

Ms. Plath experienced this deadly awful depression (for that is what I surmise she suffered from) at a time when there was not a lot of help except the draconian electric shock treatment.

Her description, through Esther her character, is dead on, and presents a perfect portrait of the mind which has lost its way. Everyone who has suffered mild or more severe depression, senses the accuracy of the painting she executes.

And that is what is chilling about the book. We can place ourselves on that spectrum. We know where we fit, and we know how close or far we were from the point where one passes beyond into the danger zone.

The theme of the bell jar is so apropos. Depression is being cut off, from feelings, from life itself. One feels disconnected, apart, and different. The depressed see what others don’t see, the inanities, the hypocrisy, the illogic of so much of life. And that depresses further, and makes every effort a “why bother” affair.

All the while one is separated by the glass, the glass which distorts as it separates, one is indeed suffocating in the stale dead air of being this “other” being. It is exactly and exquisitely accurate in portraying in such metaphor what the state of depression is like, whether in mild or severe form.

It is at the end, while Esther is ready to face her last interview prior to being released to return to school, that the most frightening of questions arises.

 How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?

A person who survives cancer and is “cured” forever lives with the worry that the cancer will return. The severely mentally ill, once “cured” must forever  live with the fear that the madness will return.

Of course Plath leaves Esther on the brink of wellness, or so we think.

We know that Plath herself, survived long enough to see her novel published, and that she was writing poetry at the end. Surely she was aware that the bell jar had descended once again upon her. She succumbed and died by her own hand.

Sylvia suffered her breakdown in the early 1950’s and then went on to be quite successful in school. She completed this novel and was published under a pseudonym in 1963. Her mother could not stop its publication under her own name in 1971. She died soon after its publication in 1963.

You can read it online here.

8 comments on “The Bell Jar

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