I’m sure most writers are no stranger to the work of Sylvia Plath, her poems have penetrated the world of literature and become hauntingly beautiful time capsules of a life which should have been better. Plath’s tragic suicide, resulting from her depression and abusive relationships, has only widened the gulf between her mindset and the mythical work she created.

The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, seen as an autobiographical account of her early life. The main protagonist of her novel Esther Greenwood, a young intern at a fashion magazine in New York City, has her whole life ahead of her but is plagued by the suffocating nature of her mental health, which Plath embodies in a bell jar. The jar represents being trapped by the unavoidable prison of depression which rests on Esther’s psyche. If you hadn’t figured it out already this novel is definitely not for the faint of heart, it’s gritty, harsh and clinical but it’s highly worth reading every single line, it’s also beautiful.  

“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.”

Plath’s story unfolds in New York, where our protagonist and narrator Esther Greenwood is interning at a fashion magazine. She is unimpressed with the big city which so many of the girls have fallen head over heels for. Plath captures the mindset and musings of an outsider, an outsider of relationships and the city. Esther is a character who is well and truly isolated from her friends and colleagues, she is a character who doesn’t know what she wants from life at all. During scenes, Esther watches her peers develop relationships with men, advance in their careers but Esther herself remains motionless; stagnant in her life and career. Sylvia Plath, captures the essence of what it means to be isolated and confused in a city where people are connected and precise in their aspirations. The Bell Jar is beautiful because it is so honest, we all like to think that we have the answers for everything but more often than not we don’t, faking it till we make it isn’t usually a viable option, it can leave us purposeless and ashamed.  

“because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

As the story progresses, Esther’s grip on her life begins to slip as the bell jar encapsulates her mindset and suffocates her passions and desires. Regardless, of where she is, Esther will always have to contend with the negative emotions and her own “sour air.” Writers should read this novel because it shows the tragic slipping of a girl lost within her own psyche, and Plath captures it tenderly and beautifully. My sympathies for Esther as I read the book only increased and I felt a tenderness for the character wishing that life would pick up although ultimately knowing that it wouldn’t. Plath shows us with her work that sometimes we can only watch, a car crash in slow motion or a life slowly passing. The Bell Jar is Esther’s inevitable downfall in a world she can’t understand and which can’t understand her. 

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

The Bell Jar is also an exceptionally important piece of literature due to it’s feminist connotations. Without literature like the Bell Jar we may never have seen such a large display of social progress within the twentieth century. The Bell Jar led to a change of societal roles for women, it provided women with more answers, more options and more pathways to navigate their lives the best way possible. Along with Betty Friedan and the other leading feminist thinkers at the time Sylvia Plath made the voices of young women, who where confused and uninspired, heard. Plath questions why we should follow social norms in a time when social norms were set in concrete, her protagonist Esther becomes a tragic casualty of a society that forces individuals into narrow pathways like livestock in a corral.    

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

Throughout the novel Esther is looking for a sense of stability. Towards the end of the book… I won’t spoil anything don’t worry! She begins to evaluate what it means to be alive. This is why Sylvia Plath’s novel is so special, the honesty of her protagonist and the way she looks at the world is remarkable. The novel is real, it feels like a diary. Almost a true account of what occurs in the minds of thousands who are raked and beaten by mental illness. This book is a companion to anyone who has struggled. Anyone who wants to write with an authentic and honest voice should pick up the Bell Jar today and read it multiple times. It truly belongs on every writer’s bookshelf. 

What do you Think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the novel too, make sure you leave a comment down below. What do you think of Esther Greenwood’s story? Would you recommend the Bell Jar? Let me know!