The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood, the narrator of this autobiographical novel, is a complex and troubled young woman. It’s the summer of 1953 and Esther should be happy. She is working for a magazine in New York City as a college intern, along with other high achieving girls. But, Esther is something of an outsider. She wants to be a writer, and she isn’t interested in marriage, babies, or in learning stenography for a backup career as a secretary.

When she returns home, she discovers that she has not been accepted into a prestigious writing course that she had been counting on to keep her moving forward. Instead, she spirals into depression, unable to read, write, or sleep. Her mother simply doesn’t understand that Esther can’t just snap out of it. After a disastrous electroshock therapy treatment, Esther begins to seriously consider suicide.

The author herself committed suicide just a month after the publication of The Bell Jar in England in 1963. Her death created a lot of interest in her work, and the novel was published in America in 1971 after Plath’s mother failed to block its publication. (She doesn’t come off looking too good in the book.) The book became a feminist classic, a sort of female Catcher in the Rye. Esther talks frankly about subjects that were formerly hidden from view, including sex and mental illness. She struggles with becoming her own person in a society trying to mold her into someone she isn’t interested in becoming.

It’s impossible to say how we would feel about The Bell Jar if Sylvia Plath had not committed suicide at the age of 30. The English reviews were not particularly positive, and if Plath had lived, she would not have allowed the book to be published here until after her mother’s death in 1994. By then this groundbreaking work would not have seemed quite so daring. However, The Bell Jar still has a lot to say about social pressure, about men and women, and about growing up female.

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