“Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.”
~ Sylvia Plath
How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?Chapter 20 ~ The Bell Jar
Originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has been on my reading list for far too long. Semi-autobiographical in nature, it follows the journey of a young woman as she struggles with mental illness. Knowing that Plath killed herself a month after the book’s UK publication, makes reading it quite difficult. We never know how the protagonist, Esther, copes in later life, but there are clues that (hopefully) reveal a happier outcome.
Having faced my own mental health demons, reading or watching something that shows the shocking methods used to treat people as recent as the 20th century, really hits home. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen is another book I read this year that shows the lack of awareness and fear that surrounded it.
Summer 1953: Esther Greenwood has won the fantastic opportunity to intern for a magazine in New York. Thrust into a world of cocktail parties, gourmet meals and glamour, she doesn’t understand why she isn’t embracing this chance of a lifetime. Instead we see a girl trying to work out where it all went wrong and fighting against the expectations laid upon her. Someone who has always succeeded and done well at school, she is unprepared for the realities of life.
Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. 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.Chapter 1 ~ The Bell Jar
We get glimpses into her previous life and the men she loved – or thought she loved – including close family friend Buddy, who expects that they will marry. We also see some of her life in New York, including a food poisoning incident at a top NYC restaurant and a scene where she is almost raped by a man at a party. Yet she remains stoic about these occurrences, until her internship finishes and she throws all of her clothes off the roof.
When Esther returns home, her future seems extremely uncertain. She considers various options for the summer and realises that she has no real plans for when she finishes university. Gradually, her mental health deteriorates and she struggles to sleep. Eventually she starts to see a psychiatrist who recommends shock therapy, but this is followed by several suicide attempts. She does not commit to the first few, but finally she leaves a note for her mother, takes an excessive amount of sleeping pills and hides in the cellar. The media report her as missing, presumed murdered. Then her mother finds her alive and she is sent away for treatment.
During her recuperation a close friend hangs herself and Esther finally loses her virginity. These seem to bring her closer to recovery, but we never find out as the book ends with her final interview, pending release from the hospital.
The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.Chapter 13 ~ The Bell Jar
There is still much that we don’t understand about mental health, but we can be assured that in the 21st century there is more empathy. Although a quarter of the world’s population will be affected at some point in their lives, it is still something that is not discussed openly. However, books like The Bell Jar, the transparency of many prominent people and a greater awareness in schools are helping to drive the conversation.
The fact that we never find out what happens to Esther shows that despite various treatments, mental health does not just ‘go away’ and can remain present for years. In the beginning of The Bell Jar Esther mentions that she gives a starfish to the baby, and this provides some small comfort that she survived into adulthood and is more in control.
The book is well-written and heartfelt. It shows us that life cannot be mapped out from childhood and is unlikely to turn out how we expect. As a small girl, I always thought I’d be married with kids by the time I was 25; once I reached that milestone age the idea appalled me as I felt far too young and inexperienced to raise children – I could barely look after myself!
With so many parallels to Sylvia Plath’s own life, reading The Bell Jar made me research more about the author. Her poetry collection Ariel is at times haunting, brutally honest and beautiful.
Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Yet reading The Bell Jar more than 50 years after it was published, it still resonated. I understood part of what Esther was feeling; we still have pressure from family to meet their expectations, to do the right thing. Virginity is still something that is held up as sacred by many young people, even though the idea of being ‘pure’ on your wedding day is no longer expected. Mental health remains taboo, but times are changing and there is more understanding and empathy. There needs to be more education in schools and in the workplace so that people can hold conversations with pupils and employees, but we are moving forward. And Plath’s book remains a timeless story of one girl’s quest for happiness and belonging.