Year of a Hundred books – #54 The Bell Jar

The Bell JarThe Bell JarSylvia Plath
4/5

While I was reading The Bell Jar I frequently found myself reminded of Save Me The Waltz. There are a lot of parallels between the two: both are semi-autobiographical novels written by talented women married to more famous literary men (in this instance the poet Ted Hughes), and both deal with the tragedy of mental illness. Fortunately, The Bell Jar is by far the easier of the two to read, and arguably the story is more interesting.

As I said, The Bell Jar was much easier to read than Save Me the Waltz, though it still had some beautiful prose in there. Unfortunately, because of my backlog of blog posts, it’s a couple of weeks since I read the book, and have forgotten all of them. I need to start taking notes! However, just because it was easy to read, that doesn’t mean it was light reading at all!

The Bell Jar tells the story of the narrator, Esther’s, descent into depression and her struggle to live her life with the condition. Her physical and mental experiences are horrifying, particularly a failed attempt at electroshock therapy, and that’s not even touching on her social interactions and the way she is treated both by the medical staff and fellow patients in the mental hospital, and by her friends and relations back in the world. The distressing nature of the book varies, because on the one hand, it’s based on Plath’s own life, but on the other, that was half a century or more ago, and both medical and social attitudes have changed since then. Except, as someone who only has a peripheral experience with depression, I am left wondering just how much those attitudes have developed.

The way that Plath writes about depression is one of the most interesting and emotive explanations I’ve ever heard. Depression is the titular Bell Jar, that Esther finds herself encased in, like a canary in an Enlightenment-era science experiment: Inescapable, claustrophobic and suffocating. While she does eventually come to the conclusion that sometimes the bell jar can be lifted, and you can live your life without its effects, there is always going to be the ever-present worry that it could fall back, trapping you again. Indeed, this danger is illustrated in the book in a truly heartbreaking fashion.

 

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