The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Book # 433

Reviewer: Kara

I am climbing to my freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway…

Esther Greenwood is a Smith College student in the early 1950s. She is an excellent student and loves to write, earning her a summer internship at a fashion magazine. However, Esther is slowly becoming disillusioned with the role she, as a woman, is asked to play in the world. She begins to question the behavior of the women around her, her feelings for her boyfriend, and the weight of her virginity hanging over her head. Esther suffers a mental breakdown that leads readers through the dizzying maze of mental health care in the 50s.

The Bell Jar landed on my to-read list back about 8 years ago, when I was a fresh-faced and idealistic college student. I briefly met Gloria Steinem and heard her speak and in follow-up discussions with other students, Sylvia Plath came up and has been in the back of my mind ever since. Now that I finally gotten around to reading The Bell Jar, I wish I had read it 8 years ago. My reaction at the time would have been strong and emotional – I was in the thick of a milder, turn-of-the-21st-century version of what Plath’s narrator, Esther Greenwood, faces. Now, at 28, I feel personally beyond what Esther faces, but I was still struck by the truth of how coming-of-age as a woman is portrayed.

As a look into the lives of young women of the 50s, this novel is fascinating. Esther’s confusion about sex and love and her path in life are heartbreaking and very nearly destroy her. There is a moment where she sees her possible futures as ripe and beautiful figs on a tree. All she needs to do is choose one, but she can’t. She doesn’t want to choose between love and career, and as she considers her choice the figs begin to blacken and rot.

This is a beautiful microcosm of early feminism, and the way that freedom could trap women just as much as patriarchy because once a decision was made there would be no turning back. A career woman wouldn’t marry or have children and a mother would have a lifelong role as housewife.

Esther’s hangup with sex also says a lot about coming of age as a woman in the 50s. She wants to lose her virginity so it will stop hanging over her head, but she has no access to birth control and is plagued by the not yet outdated notion that by losing her purity she will be cast aside by men, her community, and the world at large.

Esther’s confusion, fear and indecision plummet her into despair and the second half of the novel is a close look at the various mental health options in place in the 50s, from impersonal male psychiatrists and electric shock therapy, to low-quality state hospitals and high-quality private hospitals. It is at this point in the novel that the meaning of the “the bell jar” becomes clear. Esther, and by extension other young women of the time, feels confined under glass, breathing her own “sour air” and unable to free herself from her prison, though the ending does offer hope.

The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.

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