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Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Disclaimer: The review was written based on the character of Esther Greenwood and not the author. This review includes mild to moderate spoilers.

When I was asked to pick a book written by the woman author and had a woman protagonist, I wasn't sure which one to choose. A vague thought about Sylvia Plath entered my brain, and I chose The Bell Jar, her only novel.

Though I know her poems and a little about her life, I wasn't aware that this book was termed semi-autobiographical. Combine the fact that she committed suicide a month after the publication of the book makes reviewing a double-edged sword. First published under a pseudonym in 1963, the book was republished with her name in 1967. So I've decided to set aside those details and treat the book similar to other fiction works.


The Bell Jar is written in the first-person narration. It is narrated by the protagonist Esther Greenwood. The tone is bleak, dry, and dark.

The storyline is simple: a young girl, a nineteen-year-old, with straight A's, goes to New York for a month on a paid internship. She does what's expected of her, goes back home, and things start to spiral downward and tumble into the void.

She's shifted to a care center for treatment. The book ends with Esther entering into a room for a final interview with the doctors, who will decide if she is fit to go out and live on her own.

If we go back to first or second page, we'll see her casually mentioning a baby. We can assume that she's recovered enough and leads a better life with her baby.

The author throws in several questions, instances, and characters through the course of the book that makes this anything but a simple story. Many people have called it a book about depression, mental illness, breakdowns, and the oppression of women in the then American society.

There are regular references to Catholics, Unitarians, and the differences between them. The varying perceptions, the rules, thoughts, actions, and just about everything seem to revolve around these differences in a very subtle manner. Feminism is dealt with, and so is lesbianism, though feminism takes the center stage more than once. Title: Esther describes her life similar to that of a bell jar where she feels oppressed by everything, including her thoughts. But even before she talks about it, we see more than one reference about her fascination with bell jars in the hospitals where they store organs and dead babies. It could e ban attempt at dark humor or a symbol (or both), but the reference stays with us.

Writing: The author uses flashbacks to give readers the backstory of the events leading to the incident. To me, it seems like a mix of the first-person narration with SoC (Stream of Consciousness). It might appear repetitive since the stream of conscious thought is mostly written in the first person.

But this is a careful and artful weaving of SoC into a straightforward narrative. I've written in this style (before I read the book), and that's how I could connect with the bouncing of thoughts, ideas, and scenes in the book without any effort. Some readers may not be comfortable with it ( find it not easy to read), though I didn't see too many people complaining about it.

The writing is quite raw, and I've read that she finished the book in around a month and sent it for publishing with very little editing. That did turn out to be a plus as people related to the roughness of the style.

The tone is detached to the point of sounding like the third person telling us a story. I wonder if there would be much change to the tone of it was rewritten in the limited third person. Characterization: While some people have claimed to cry while reading the book, others like me confessed to not being as moved. It depends on a lot of factors. The main reason being how much, as a reader, we connect and relate to the protagonist.

Even as I was feeling sad for Esther, I couldn't help but wonder how much of it would have been sorted if she stopped trying to mold herself into a model of perfection.

Perfection is relative, and we see how every woman in her life is hell-bent on turning Esther into another version of themselves. Except for Dr. Nolan who changes Esther's life for better, just about everyone wants her to fit into their box of an ideal woman.

Doreen, Jay Cee, Jody, Esther's mother, Mrs. Guinea are all guilty of the same crime. But is Esther the innocent victim? Some readers may not agree with me. But I have to say that she's not an innocent victim. Yes, she suffered, but she had an active role to play in it.

We can see from the beginning how Esther always wanted the best scores, even when she hated the subject. She drove herself over the edge by comparing herself with everyone around her. She was never happy with her talents and craved for so many things at once that nothing could satisfy her. She knows it (refer: to a fig tree) and still finds it impossible to break away from it.

Esther Greenwood is a fascinating character. She is a paradox; a living contradiction. The author did an excellent job of highlighting the contrasts and using them as a tool to drive her into depression.

There is no drama- none by Esther. She's taught herself to be a calm, composed, and balanced woman that by the time she realizes she wanted to be seen for whom she was, it's too late. This pushes her back into the shell where she wants nobody to see her for herself anymore.

Her attempts and lack of attempts at suicide show she's not capable of it in her mind. Yes, she goes ahead with it and that puts her in the hospital for good, but she's still not sure if she wants to kill herself. And not once does she regret living. There is a fighter in her, buried so deep that she failed to use that grit to accomplish her goals.

Indecision seems to be one of the underlying themes which is contrary to the way Esther decides she doesn't want to opt for any other course to her life. She doesn't want to marry Buddy, and doesn't want to follow her mother's idea of what's right for her career. The more we look at the way the story progresses, the more contradictions we see.

Even Joan's character screams of the same struggle. She surprises everyone with how a smart and sensible girl ends up suffering a breakdown and kills herself.

One character that has nothing to do with the story but has everything to do with it is Mr. Greenwood, Esther's late father. Esther mentions how she was happy until she was 9. It was then that her father passed away. While her mother appears to be relieved, Esther begins to sink, unknowingly into despair and isolation. Her brief outburst near his grave is the indication that a part of her closed off and vanished with his death. As she grew, the abyss widened, finally swallowing her from inside.

Apathy and self-love go hand in hand for Esther. Her inability to love anybody, to feel anything more than a mild interest or disinterest for a thing, place or a person shows Esther is afraid of investing in her emotions. Or maybe she was so used to burying them that she believed she wasn’t capable of any.

I cannot ignore the undercurrent of narcissistic tendencies Esther shows. It could be linked to her childhood, especially after the death of her father when her mother had no time for emotions, and earning became a priority. Somewhere through the years, Esther’s world began to revolve around herself. To what extent it aided her mental breakdown is something to consider. To me, it played a vital role in pushing her to crave perfection, which in turn, shoved her over the edge.

Though I would like to dissect other characters, I feel Esther has created more than enough impact on her own. She is, after all, a strange mix of various shadows of people in her life. That's how she lived; that's how she narrated her story- a distant shadow that lingers long after the actual presence has left the place.

Four Stars


You can read a little more about how Srivalli published her book of poetry here. As we are looking for poetry submissions, we thought we'd give one of our resident poets a chance to talk about their own work:

Violets in Hand is the first book I self-published after much doubt. It has 30 poems written during NaNoWriMo month in 2019, along with poems written for various prompts during 2018-19 (until the month of publication). I've wanted to publish a poetry book for a while but knew there was no market for it (at least in my country), and the paperback wasn't a feasible option (unless I count invest thousands in it). A chance comment by a friend made me go for the ebook (I considered it a sign from the Universe since I was thinking about it). 

I added tiny notes after each poem to give readers a glimpse into my thoughts and the prompt I used for it. I've always wondered why a poet used a particular theme or style or phrase and thought if even some of the readers were like me, they'd enjoy the notes as much as the poems. 

This book is very special to me, being my first solo work, and poetry has been a favorite for as long as I can remember.

After a rather heavy review, if you are in the mood for some poetry, check out Srivalli's book of poetry!


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