Synopsis: Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.
CW: Mentions of Suicide
Watching Esther going through such a struggle with her mental health, as well as trying to form her own identity in the face of societal expectations, was really hard hitting, and even more so when you realize that it’s semi-autobiographical. Plath’s struggle with mental illness and her eventual suicide are said to be reflected in this book, and it’s a little heart breaking to think of anyone feeling like this and without any support.
To me, Esther’s account of mental illness and her struggles with depression felt very accurate. An inability to do anything, regardless of how simple it may seem, is one of the most difficult symptoms of depression to deal with. The helplessness that you feel, and also feeling unable to talk to anyone about it, is so hard to deal with alone. Similarly, I felt that Plath gave an astonishingly frank discussion about suicide, and it’s contemplation. From when Esther was talking to that boy on the beach, to her actual attempt, it’s all presented in such a factual way that is chilling. All in all, it’s one of the most upfront depictions of mental illness and suicidal ideation that I have seen in literature, and really prompts compassion and empathy from those who read it for Esther (and hopefully by extension those who experience these feelings in real life).
The representation of early psychiatry and treatments for these illnesses (in this case Esther goes through electroconvulsion therapy and insulin shock treatment) were also really interesting. And by interesting I mean shocking and upsetting. I cannot believe that it was (and is still!) acceptable to induce seizures in people as a treatment for major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. Like… that doesn’t feel real. Similarly, I can’t believe that people were put into insulin-induced comas as a treatment for schizoprenia or other psychiatric disorders. Thankfully, this is no longer used today. But it really brought to attention how much psychiatry has evolved since then, and how the history of medicine is really worth examining.
Esther really is a character that you want the best for, and it’s really distressing to watch her dealing with her mental illness throughout the book. The ending in my opinion was actually really nice, and I’m so glad that Plath made that decision. By having a more hopeful ending, it shows that people can overcome their mental illness with the correct support. I only wish Plath could have had that support at the time. I rated this book 4.5 stars, but rounded up to 5.
See you again soon ducks!