Depressing yet surprisingly tender {The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath}

Depressing yet surprisingly tender. 

About The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Plath was an excellent poet but is known to many for this largely autobiographical novel. The Bell Jar tells the story of a gifted young woman's mental breakdown beginning during a summer internship as a junior editor at a magazine in New York City in the early 1950s. The real Plath committed suicide in 1963 and left behind this scathingly sad, honest and perfectly-written book, which remains one of the best-told tales of a woman's descent into insanity.  

My two cents

Who hasn't heard of Sylvia Plath, the brilliant poet who committed suicide at a young age? That's as much as I know about her, unfortunately. This is one of those books that has remained on my TBR but never gets read; a classic that begs for attention but gets cast aside for the newer things that come my way.

I have to be honest with you. The reason I finally picked this up is because I'll be reviewing an autobiography Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder and I didn't want to sound totally clueless. Thank goodness for these opportune kick-in-the-pants moments.


This is the journey of smart, young, ambitious promising Esther Greenwood in the 1950s from naive to jaded, from success to depression.

I could feel Esther's excitement at the opportunity and honour of being a guest editor in a prestigious magazine: oh the glamorous clothes, the photo shoots, the hobnobbing, free lunches, caviar. It's all enough to turn a young girl's head.

But things soured very quickly and the glitter and glamour only gave way to work, pressure, conformity, depression. This is the bell jar: Esther the specimen under scrutiny, the jar the suffocating reality in which she had to exist.


I found that reading this book was a rollercoaster ride. It's emotionally exhausting and heavily depressing, but at the same I felt oddly tender towards Esther. At times I found some scenes strangely hilarious in a shocking sort of way. There are those times when I felt I really couldn't breathe with the horrific descriptions of shock therapy, self-inflicted pain, and just the sheer mental anguish -- then juxtapose this with mundane descriptions about eating caviar (and lots of it), or a rather embarrassing sexual exploit, or of witnessing a live birth (that'll put anyone off from having kids).

I was quite affected by this book as this is told in first person. It's like getting into Esther's head which isn't a very pretty place to be (Thank goodness I'm not depressed or I may have been more affected by this novel than I would have cared to be). Esther is an astute observer and her descriptions of people, her love interests, situations and emotions are spot on, have an uncanny brevity, and interesting word choices and metaphors.

Plath also has quite the commentary about women during the 1950s, and Esther wasn't going to be one of them, she was among those breaking out of the mold. 
Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs. Willard braiding a rug out of strips of wool from Mr. Willard's old suits. She'd spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the tweedy browns and greens patterning the braid, but after Mrs. Willard was through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it down instead of a kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and indistinguishable from any mat you could buy for under a dollar in the five and ten. 
And I knew in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted  was her to flatten out under his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat.  - p. 82 
I'm a little smitten with Plath's writing and will now be checking out her poetry. And it looks like I'll be rereading this one too -- it's worth a closer look. Just let me recover.


Dark, broody, depressing. Poor dear Esther. Don't read this if you're depressed. Just don't. I can't say I'm head over heels in love with this book but it's an impressively moving novel in its simplicity and the honest brutality of its telling. Definitely worthy of being a modern classic.


  1. I read this many many years ago--it is quite a book and once you read it you will never quite forget it!

  2. I've read this book twice (or perhaps three times?) and love it! To me, she's one of those authors you wish had written stacks of novels, her writing is that good. I've been reading her diaries on and off for the past year or so. I really like it, but it's so very depressing, I keep taking breaks from it.

    1. Oh gosh, you are so right. It's such a pity that this is the only novel she wrote. I am really intrigued by her diaries, now that you mention them. I'll look them up! :)

    2. I hope you'll enjoy them! I forgot to mention that the writing in her journals is very beautiful - you can tell she's a poet!

  3. Yes, this book made me very sad at times...but I still enjoyed it very much. I also agree with you about Esther. She's so keen and observant and obviously aware, but she still can't overcome. One of my favorite reads in the last 6 months or so.

    Also, I like Plath's poetry--a lot, haha. The Applicant is one of my favorites.

    Here's the link to my review of the book, if you're interested:

    Great review, by the way.

    1. Hey Amber, it is a wonderfully written book. It looks like I'll have to go look up more Plath, diaries and poetry. I'll go check out your review :)

  4. I agree with your review, Aloi! I like the melancholy undertone because it's what made Esther such a great narrator, to me anyway. :) I also acquired a copy of her poetry, and now Ariel is waiting on my TBR!


    1. True true. It's a really unsettling book, and I don't think melancholic is a strong enough word though. I hope to read your reviews of her poetry when they're up, Aspen :) !


© guiltless readingMaira Gall