My eight-grade English teacher recommended The Bell Jar to me. She thought I could challenge myself to take on extra reading. She allowed me pick whatever I wanted from the class library. And although I remembered little to nothing of the story, I remember liking it. It was the first book I’d read in school that clicked in a different way. Not that I had too much in common with Esther, but reading a book about a young woman, written by a young woman, made an impression. Outside of The Bell Jar school reading was all Mark Twain, JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis. But Sylvia Plath was different.
That English class added a lot to my love of reading. And in my adult life I’d always wanted to revisit The Bell Jar. Rereading it felt like recalling a vague memory, but through an entirely new lens. I’m 20 years older, I have two young daughters, I see a therapist, I’ve been married for 9 years, I’ve finished my education… everything theme in this book was brighter this time around. Coming of age, motherhood, mental health, marriage, education. It was all made so much richer after time away. As it should, right?
I kept thinking about how Plath published this book when she was a young mother, just months before her death. I felt like I was reading her inner thoughts. So much of the story is a retelling of her own experiences. It’s likely because of this that the book feels like it holds a part of her soul. She writes so precisely about protagonist Esther’s “mental breakdown,” and her troubled path to recovery. The authenticity of her experience is on every page. In the end young Esther confesses that she fears when the bell jar might find her again. It seems it found Sylvia.
“Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel […] A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. I seemed a lucky thing.”
— The Bell Jar, Sylvia (six letters) Plath
This was a slow read for me. It’s the opposite of a light page-turner and far from escapist. And I wouldn’t classify its reading as enjoyable. There were several moments when it showed its age, sometimes cringe-worthy. And it was painful to read about the disintegration of Esther’s sanity. It felt like Plath wrote her protagonists’s struggles from a place of both self-hatred and empathy. At times she wrote Esther as petulant, apathetic, hateful. And others she was hopeful, warm, intelligent. But she never really wrote her as entirely aware of her illness. I don’t think Plath was either. She calls it the bell jar because she’s without the words to fully describe what is happening to her. This was the saddest part of the book for me. It’s so telling of a time when mental health was illegitimate. Esther’s illness was without hope, without a clear diagnosis, and no way out. She was lost in a system of shame.
But after all that, I liked it. I really did! Her writing is poetic, funny, and deep. It’s a fascinating step back in time. I felt like I was truly bearing-witness to one woman’s experience. And taking into account the context of the author, her history, and her tragic end, makes the reading experience that much more impactful. I’m glad I gave this one a reread. And it will be interesting to see what I think when I read it again in 20 more years 🙂