The Bell Jar is a relentlessly honest and haunting book written by Sylvia Plath. It tells the story of fictional character Esther Greenwood as she spirals into the depths of depression.
The semi-autobiographical nature of the book makes it an even heavier read, given Plath’s own depression and ultimate suicide in 1963, just a month after the book’s initial publication. Much of what occurs in the book follows Plath’s own experiences though names have been changed.
I opted to listen to the book on audio after receiving a suggestion from Audible once I’d finished listening to Jake Gyllenhaal’s wonderful narration of The Great Gatsby. The Bell Jar is narrated by his equally talented sister Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The first-person narrative of the book lends itself well to an audio version. Maggie Gyllenhaal has interpreted the character of Esther brilliantly. Her voice is brimming with emotion, which changes fluidly from paragraph to paragraph, mapping Esther’s feelings and experiences. At times her voice is tantalising and youthful, particularly at the beginning. As time passes, we hear her becoming more apathetic and depressed.
The book is relatable and that is part of its appeal. Esther loses herself as she transitions from one period of her life to another. This is a feeling that many people struggle with at one time or another.
“I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I just hadn’t thought about it.”
We may not all slip into the dark depths that Esther experiences, but many people will be able to relate to some extent. Even if not, the ubiquitousness of mental health problems in modern society makes it an important study.
It also explores the role and limits of women in society. It is based in the 1950s and is a fascinating study of American society at that time. Some of the issues, such as the double standards that Esther sees for men and women, are still relevant today.
Virginity and pureness are notable themes, so much so that Esther starts to define and distinguish between people by whether they are virgins or not:
“When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue. Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.”
After discovering that her boyfriend Buddy Willard had slept with someone, she says: “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.”
One of the most striking analogies in the book is the fig tree, which Plath uses to illustrate the choices a woman must make in her life. It’s such a wonderful analogy that it’s worth quoting in full:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
The Bell Jar is an impressive book that gives the reader an insight into depression while also addressing themes such as gender, family and social pressures. The audio version by Maggie Gyllenhaal is definitely worth a listen.