The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful but slowly going under - maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther's breakdown with such intensity that Esther's insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.
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An amazing book for so very many reasons, but the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the beautiful writing and the commentary on the place of women in society.
The book is simply chock-full of descriptions, similes and metaphors that are tiny poems hidden in plain view. Many of these descriptions had to do with the life of the mind, as here:
“I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next day had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.”
“Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were a part of me. They were my landscape.”
But many of them had to do with suicide, as here:
“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn't do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.”
Heart-wrenching as those passages were, the parts that really spoke to me were the ones where Plath talked about marriage, childbirth, and other observations about the lot of women in the world. Below are a few passages that I found particularly insightful:
“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.”
“And I knew that 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 when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat...I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”
“I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor or pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.”
[I listened to this as an audio book performed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Not only did she do a superb job, but also the audio book contained a short biography of Plath at the end that greatly enhanced my appreciation of the book]
Maggie Gyllenhaal captures the depressed essence of Sylvia Plath in her stellar performance of The Bell Jar. The story yields what seems to be a raw and deeply personal account of a person's gradual slip into mental illness and the struggle to break free of its grasp and the accompanying social stigma. Reading this book you feel as though you are inside the mind of a "crazy" person, all the while finding out how rational - and even sane - crazy can be.