Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

First published 1963; cover shown is an undated Faber and Faber Ltd (UK) paperback edition (circa 1990s). Cover art by Donna Muir. 258p.

In the summer of 1953, twenty-year-old Esther Greenwood is in New York, writing articles for a magazine while on a break from college. Pretty, intelligent and gifted, she seems to have it all. She also has strict ideals, and a certain knowledge of what she wants to do with her life.

She doesn't want to be just another wife and mother; just another person like all the thousands of other people she sees each day, scurrying to work then scurrying back home again. Sexual inequality, love, men, her writing... it is all making less sense and becoming harder to deal with.

Back in her home town, the glamour and importance of life in New York is replaced with sharing a bedroom with her neurotic mother, and the knowledge that maybe her writing isn't going to take her where she wants to be after all. Esther starts leaving her hair unwashed, her clothes unchanged. Suicide is a constant thought, and she makes a number of halfhearted attempts.

Eventually, after a terrifying botched electric shock treatment and visiting her father's grave and venting the anger she's held inside since childhood, she takes a bottle of sleeping pills into the cellar and crawls into a hole in the brickwork. She is found three days later.

The second part of the novel details Esther's treatment in a number of mental institutions, which includes further electric shock treatments. Combined with the life changing events of losing her virginity and experiencing death, Esther begins the long journey back to sanity.

This is a fascinatingly honest book, made all the more real because many of Esther's fears and dreams are all too familiar to me. The author, Sylvia Plath, succeeded in committing suicide just one month after the semi-autobiographical book's publication in 1963.

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