The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
Category: Fiction / General
234 pages; ISBN: 0-571-08178-9
Rating: 8/10 (Ratings explained)
The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel and it's so autobiographical it barely qualifies as fiction. That alone guarantees it continued relevance since Plath's life and work is still (and she died before Kennedy) the subject of a particularly fierce debate between her champions and supporters of her late husband Ted Hughes. Which is ironic as one of the main themes of the book is the battle between the sexes.
It is a fictionalised account of Plath's early womanhood (in the guise of Esther Greenwood) in America as an exceptionally bright scholarship girl who suffers a nervous breakdown on returning from a busman's holiday in New York.She enters a mental institution after a failed suicide attempt.Knowing that Plath did take her own life in 1963 you would expect the novel to be a deeply depressing read full of grim portents of the author's demise.
However it is nothing of the kind.The Bell Jar is quite a light read due to Plath's economic style and sharp wit.Her later poems are famous for their brutal assaults on friends and family and she is clearly flexing her talons here.The main victims here are her mother (Mrs Plath wasn't too enamoured with TBJ to put it mildly) nagging at her prodigiously gifted to learn shorthand and a parentally-approved boyfriend,Buddy Willard,the recipient of a fabulously terse putdown when he unwisely decides to show her his genitals.
The Bell Jar is also a wonderfully evocative portrait of early post-war America, a time when women were just beginning to question their given role in society. As Esther, Plath gives an insight into the frustrations of a brilliant mind turned destructively on itself for want of opportunities to blossom.The novel does lose some potency in the later chapters when Esther is being treated in the institution and her caustic commentary necessarily dries up but we love her to bits by then.