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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I recently finished The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It was Ms. Plath’s only novel and based on portions of her life.I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either.  I make this admission with hesitation only because I sort of feel like I’m betraying feminism or something.

Esther Greenwood seems like she’s got the perfect start to a great life.  It’s 1953.  She goes to a prestigious college on a scholarship, and she wins a coveted position as a guest editor at a ladies fashion magazine in New York.  Despite her talent and intelligence, Esther feels powerless and insecure about the future.  The 1950s demanded well-defined roles for men and women and these societal expectations were the ingredients that brought the bell jar over Esther’s head.

Apparently, in those days electroshock therapy was the go to cure for depression.  I thought it was kind of medieval, but I was surprised to read in this MSNBC article that ECT was making a comeback.  This treatment has found some success in helping individuals who have not responded to antidepressants.

The act of entering and leaving the asylum is an example of the themes of death and rebirth found throughout the novel.

All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung suspended a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.

Although relieved to ditch the asylum, Esther leaves with uneasiness.  Would there be another depressive episode in the future?

But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday–at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere–the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?

The Bell Jar was published in January 1963 under a pseudonym.  One month later, Ms. Plath committed suicide.

Although I didn’t love this book, I thought that it is still an important literary work.  It made me reflect on how difficult it was for women to break conventional expectations.  Women did it anyway though the road was not always easy.  I’m grateful to these women who are our grandmothers, mothers and aunts.  Such courage made it easier for me to reach for what I wanted.

Sylvia Plath

The details of our experiences may differ from Esther’s, but I daresay we have battled with our own bell jars.  To the Sylvias and Esthers of the world, you are not alone.

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

Have you read The Bell Jar?  What did you think?