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February 22, 2016

Review: The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was originally published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. The author chose to have the book published under a pseudonym in order to protect the people around her and remain anonymous. The names of the characters were changed and some were created from multiple personalities Plath was connected to. Fearing that the novel may be badly received by readers and critics she did not want the reviews to reflect on her poetry and short stories. Only after she had committed suicide was the book published in her real name and it was only years later that the book was published in America against her wishes.

The Bell Jar is a story of Sylvia Plath’s decline into insanity. Plath goes about telling her tale through her alter ego Esther Greenwood, a young woman making her place in the world as a writer, her decent into madness, and her recovery. She focuses largely on themes of pain, suffering, and death and creates intense images while keeping the poetic and sophisticated voice she is known for. One of my favourite passages, which largely reflects Plath’s voice, appears when Esther crawls into the breezeway of the house, “[t]he cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one.” (Plath 163)

The novel is freely autobiographical recounting events and people in Plath’s life. As the story centers on Esther, she becomes the only well developed character in the story— aside from Buddy Willard most of the other characters are partial and under developed. In doing this Plath succeeds in giving her readers insight into her own life and struggles, which leads to the great success of her novel among readers all over the world. It is said that the early readers of Plath’s story were fixated on the autobiographical aspect. One critic, Elizabeth Hardwick, plead with readers to differentiate between Plath as a writer and Plath as an “event” as many people were and are still doing. (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: Critical Reception)

Though Plath does recount most of her life story, this was not her main goal in writing the novel. She seeks to create a work of art and a story that people can relate to and appreciate. It is the feeling with which the story is told that triumphs, not the action that unfolds. Plath was beyond her years in writing The Bell Jar. Written in a time of the cold war, the extermination camps, and clashes between communism and capitalism, her writing reflects more the times we are living now than the lethargies of the Eisenhower years. It was not, however, completely uncommon to have such contempt for your family and such lack of conventional sentimentality, the 50s had an oppressive, soul-crushing ambiance. Sylvia Plath was destructive and fascinated with death.

As Sylvia Plath stayed true to her poetic self throughout the novel, the story is told in a “girlish” voice that reinforces the story as a whole. It gives the story a sense of lightheartedness while confronting heavy subjects and themes such as suicide and mental instability. Esther takes pleasure in mundane things with which we can relate. During her stay at the asylum she knocks over a tray of thermometers the nurse has set on her bed, before the attendants can wheel her out of the room she picks up a ball of mercury among the shards on the floor and describes it in such a poetic manner:

“I opened my fingers a crack, like a child with a secret, and smiled at the silver globe cupped in my palm. If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of itself, and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one whole again.” (Plath 176)

She regards the ball of mercury, a highly poisonous chemical, with a childlike appreciation and disregards the possible dangers it holds.

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel is not a book of self-piety. It is mended from pure confession and realization of her experiences in the “real world.” It is, in my opinion, a work of pure genius and has become one of my favourite novels due to the strong quality of voice, images, and language it portrays. Plath has always been one of the poets I most cherish and her work with The Bell Jar only fortifies my adoration for her. Joyce Carol Oats deems the book “A near-perfect work of art” and I couldn’t agree more.