If you’ve ventured over to my Goodreads over the past month, you may notice that The Bell Jar has been stuck in my currently reading for a stupidly long time. By way of an explanation, I must admit that I had to take a break 3/4 of the way through this book. Partly, this was because I was reading this as an audiobook on my commute to uni, and since last week was Reading Week, I wasn’t commuting. But mainly, it was because I needed to step away.
The Bell Jar documents the story of Esther Greenwood, both before and during her experience with mental illness. Throughout the book, we see Esther in many different situations and are given an insight into her mind as someone suffering from depression. (Note: If you are fearful of triggers, this book would not be for you, especially for topics such as suicide, depression, torture [in the form of electrotherapy] and institutionalisation).
As an audiobook, I listened to the version by Maggie Gyllenhaal, I enjoyed the book. I feel it would have been harder to read this book as it was a very bleak topic, and having it read aloud really let me focus on the words. Maggie had a really perfect voice for this story, as she generally kept her tone flat, illustrating the depression of Esther, but due to the intonation of her voice still made it interesting to listen to.
Looking at the novel itself, let’s start at the very beginning. Personally, I really enjoyed the sections set in New York as it very subtly established the fragility of Esther’s psyche. Allowing us to see this point in her life shows us the superficiality of her relationships and makes her descent into madness all the more intriguing.
As the book progresses, Esther descends further and further into depression. Although the transition is gradual (in regards to both her descent into depression, culminating with her attempt at suicide, and then later showing her recovery). The first person narrative was insightful and informative, taking obvious influence from Plath’s own life.
The novel has the obvious advantage of being written by a woman who suffered many of the struggles Esther did. Furthermore, as it was initially written under a pseudonym, we do not have to fear that Plath is sugar-coating the truth to save face – the account is brutally honest. In fact, some reviews I have read have suggested the piece is too honest and was very depressing to read. I would like these people to find me a book talking about mental illness that is not depressing (I fear it would not be very realistic) and would like to contradict this opinion completely. Yes, the book is ‘depressing’ (as it’s about depression!) but the bleakness of the piece is essential to the narrative. For those stuck in the challenging section in the institution, I promise, there is a little optimism if you can get that far!
I feel it is important to address the fact that I did have to take a break (not a trend I usually stick to in my reading). The topic and context of the piece are very bleak, and so it can be hard to find the motivation to pick it up. However, due to Plath’s predominantly poetic career, the images are beautifully eloquent, helping to lessen the hardship of some points. The book is not in any way graphic or disturbing, but rather is a look at the ins and outs of mental illness, and an insight into how these people were perceived in Plath’s society.
I have read some criticism which suggests links between The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye. Although I see where they are coming from, as both texts are written from the perspectives of the outsider, they tell very different tales. While Catcher in the Rye tells the story of Holden, a boy who is forever on the fringe of society. Esther’s story is from the perspective of a girl on the cusp of the American Dream, but is brought down by her maddness, ending the novel as an outsider due to her experience. If you enjoyed one of these texts, there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy the other. However, if you weren’t a fan of Catcher in the Rye, don’t write this one off just yet (I’m living proof that this book can be appreciated by a non-Catcher fan).
Overall, I think this novel was extremely interesting and insightful. However. I can appreciate that it is not for everyone. It’s not a piece I can ever see myself wanting to re-read, and it may be particularly challenging for some people. However, I did give it 3/5 stars and am glad to finally add it to my read shelf.
What did you guys think? There seems to be a lot of mixed reviews on this particular novel – and I can see why. Let me know in the comments!