Our classics pick for April is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I had picked this book a while ago, not knowing it was the 50th anniversary this year of the publication.
I was warned when I picked this book that it would be “terribly depressing” and “Ooo, that’s so depressing I’m not sure I want to read it.” While this book was depressing, that was not the whole of the story.
The Bell Jar is a coming of age story that takes place in 1953 and centers around main character Esther Greenwood, a 21 year old college student. She is bright, but has a difficult time reconciling with the stifling world of the 1950’s. Esther works for a fashion magazine in NYC during the summer of 1953 and is fascinated with the news headlines of the day, including the execution of the Rosenbergs and a man’s suicide. It appears that Esther may be on the track to bigger and better things.
But Esther is not as stable as she presents herself. This is a coming of age story, like The Catcher In the Rye, but it is through rebirth and pain. Esther begins a slow decline into mental illness, so slowly it’s almost impossible to remember what the “trigger” was for her. In her rejection of conventional models of woman,, like purity, relationships with men, and the fashion world of NYC, she finds herself on the outside looking in. I found myself, when reading of Esther’s first suicide attempt, wondering “Well, where did that come from?” Esther had no reason to try to kill herself, she even says that she wants to see if she can do it.
Plath’s use of language, imagery, and tone in The Bell Jar allowed the reader into the mind and life of Esther Greenwood. Plath is simply a genius when it comes to weaving a story. A slim 264 pages, it was easy reading.
One of the reasons I liked this book so much was that I found so much of myself in Esther Greenwood. At that age, I too was bright, ambitious, and sometimes on the brink. But unlike Esther, I had the mental fortitude and support system to bring me back from the edge.
I listened to this book on audio and it was read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I found her reading to be less than stellar, as she read…. like… she.. was… taking… her… time. It was extremely annoying, but I was able to look past her inept reading and hear the heart of the story.
Rating: 4 stars