Understanding Esther Greenwood at 21 sure hits differently. I was 16 when I first read “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and quite certainly saw it in a different light back then, but rereading it 5 years later gave me so much more insight—it truly is a literary masterpiece.
The Bell Jar is a 1963 modern classic about a woman’s descent into the grip of insanity. The novel takes place in 1953 New York City, where Esther Greenwood, a beautiful and brilliant young woman, slowly falls into the hollows of mental instability while interning at a well-known magazine in NYC. Left tormented by the death of her father and distraught by the idea that she does not fit into the culturally and socially acceptable image of womanhood, she then attempts suicide. Although it can be deemed upsetting and poignant to read, it is beautiful and rewarding in a seemingly uncomfortable yet pleasurable way.
The first thing I noticed right away, was that the novel is actually chock-full of subtle signs that Esther’s slowly going under. Because there she is, in the midst of all the luxe and glamour of New York City, yet absolutely void of what you’re supposed to feel when you are, in fact, in the midst of all the luxe and glamour of New York City:
“I was supposed to be having the time of my life. […] Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
What I really liked was the general pace of the novel—edgy yet controlled and stifling with subtle suspense—it kept me on my toes that I read the last 200 pages in one sitting. The writing throughout the book is fairly readable and flows just right. Plath’s tone is crisp and intelligent, with a just amount of transparency that still requires some reading between the lines.
Although the theme of the novel is in itself quite unsettling, I enjoyed certain discussions about womanhood and conventional social standards. Throughout the novel, Esther consistently resists to conform into the conventional concept of femininity (i.e. pregnancy and the demand for being a natural nurturer that is tied with the sexual double standards that still exist for women) and the patriarchal idea of marriage—which she believes both stand in the way of her sense of individuality.
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
In a way, this certain connotation she has of being restrained by societal norms serves as the central subject for the metaphor of the novel’s title. “The bell jar” that gives Esther the feeling of being “trapped” does not only represent her evident mental deterioration throughout the novel, but also is in itself a general metaphor for a society that is constricted into homogeneity by its own conventions. Now, that is one brutally apt metaphor.
I don’t want to give too much away because I’m trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but I can say that this novel truly is deserving of the recognition it has received and has been receiving through the years. It’s not everyday I get to read a book as thought-provoking as this, and it has easily become one of my favorites. So, if you’re ever looking for a challenging yet satisfying read, now is the perfect time to pick this one up!