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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

I stumbled upon a HarperPerennial blog a while back called The Olive Reader. If you recall, I mentioned that they are starting their own book club called English 101. You can check out my post on that here. Anyway, they asked if I wanted to review any of their books and I picked The Bell Jar, a classic novel by Sylvia Plath. I had read probably twenty pages back in high school or college but never finished it. I thought I'd give it another chance...that and the Olive Edition with the purple cover is just too cool.

The story starts out with Ester Greenwood, a young, fairly attractive woman, who is spending the summer interning in NYC at a magazine. I'm assuming the time frame is the early 1960s. Sounds fun, right? Not really. She comes across as kind of glum or complacent. While her friends are going out to parties and being fairly promiscuous, Ester is just kind of going along with the flow but not really a part of it. Actually, many of her experiences are pretty terrifying, including a weird almost-rape scene at a party. Oh, and she's also engaged to a sickly guy who she isn't particularly interested in.

Returning home, she applies to attend a school for writing but is turned down. What proceeds is her spiral into depression. Concerned, her mom makes her see a psychiatrist who gives her electric shock therapy. Yeah. Apparently her depression isn't a symptom of her environment but of faulty wiring in her brain. Obviously the treatment doesn't work well and she becomes suicidal and is institutionalized.

I'm going to leave the story there.

Before picking up the novel, I knew somewhat what the book was about. I kept thinking about the movie Girl, Interrupted. While this book sounds incredibly depressing, it actually wasn't. Well maybe just a bit. Instead, it just made me think. I thought about what makes people go crazy or depressed. How I don't think I would have been a very sane person during that time period. How society puts so much pressure on people then and now that it's amazing that more people don't lose it.

I also thought, just maybe, Ester wasn't that crazy. But then again, maybe she was. The story is through her perspective but I never felt that I really knew what she thought or felt. I couldn't quite grasp what her depression spiral stemmed from but maybe that's just me.

While it is an interesting and thought provoking novel, I think it's notoriety comes from being the only novel by Sylvia Plath. It was published in the early sixties under a pseudonym. Apparently the novel is semi-autobiographical and shortly after it was published, she committed suicide. So yeah, this novel stirred up some notice.

**Have you read this novel? What did you think? Have you read any other books similar to this, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or others?

Also Reviewed by:

I really like the Olive Edition's cover and particularly the spine of the book. Here's a picture:
I also remember the first time I noticed The Bell Jar was in the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You - Kat is reading the book at home on the couch.


  1. Ooh, I got this book from The Olive Reader, too! And I completely agree with you on it being a really lovely edition :-) I am excited to read it. I think Eva and I are planning a buddy read for Women Unbound on it. Exciting :-) Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I read the Bell Jar in college for a women's history class (it's been 20 years so I may be forgetting some). I liked the book though I found it rather sad; the reflections about depression and pain were interesting in class. Most of the boys in the class didn't really get the book -- I thought that was pretty telling.

    You might also like to read some of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her piece called "The Yellow Wallpaper" is still one of my favorite short stories.

  3. I read it last summer, for the second time. I think it's an amazing book.

    I also read "The Yellow Wallpaper" which is fascinating too, in it's own way.

  4. I have wanted to read this one for ages. I am pleased you got the chance too. I shall check out The Olive Reader.

  5. I love, love, love that cover! Super cool. I really enjoyed reading this book, but I found Ester to be a bit grating at times. I think I'd do well with a re-read. I agree with her not being crazy-- she just seemed like she had a modern personality and goals but was living in a more restrictive time.

    I guess those back then might have thought her crazy :/

  6. I got this book from Olive Reader too -- I'm looking forward to reading it when I get a chance. I'm glad it was mostly good :)

  7. I think I picked up this book shortly after watching 10 Things I Hate About You. lol

    I enjoyed it, but it's been yearrrrs ago, and it's one of those novels I'd love to re-read to see how it holds up under a few more years' growth and new scrutiny.

    Looove this pretty edition.

  8. I just finished reading this edition (which is, as you say, very cool), and I too couldn't stop thinking about Girl, Interrupted. I think Plath did an excellent job explaining what was going on behind Esther's breakdown, while every other example of psych ward writing I've seen never really managed to do so as well.

    I also thought the fig tree excerpt was beautifully written. I remember having a very similar feeling when I first got out of college--a kind of, what now?

  9. I read this book a couple of times, most recently a couple of years ago. I remember being glad I didn't live in Esther's time. There was so much and the expectation that women would be wives and mothers...and what do you do with yourself when you want more than that? And like you, I found it difficult to determine whether Esther was crazy or not.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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