The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My Edition

So, I was prepared to be intellectually stimulated, have my beliefs challenged and learn important life lessons as one expects to from a classic (also helped that I could tick off one more book in my bible, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!). It wasn’t long before I was utterly sucked into Esther Greenwood alias Elly Higginbottom’s world! Plath’s language is impeccable and her precise choice of words, is a delight. Her analogies, the Fig tree in particular offer vivid imagery – I could see the tree and imagine myself (in Elly’s place) quite easily,  bewitched and confounded by all the different figs/choices that were hers to make and none of them quite right. Although I’ve never been quite so depressed, I certainly know what’s it’s like to be sandwiched between a rock and a hard place, to be burdened under the weight of a million expectations, to feel pressured into making a decision you’re not ready to and to feel like you have no choice. Indeed, who doesn’t? We’ve all known what it feels like to be helpless and out of control at some point in our lives. Most of us are lucky enough to find help in time.

As I read on, I was blown away by Plath’s description of Esther’s descent into depression. Being a doctor myself and having interacted with patients who are clinically depressed, I am familiar with a lot of what she describes, but from a doctor’s point of view. The lucid, detailed, patient’s point of view that she presents is astonishingly accurate until I remember that she herself suffered from depression and committed suicide. The words she uses, the emotions she describes are eerily reminiscent to some of my patient recollections. She certainly knew what she was talking about and that makes me wonder, whether sometimes genius is not just another name for an abnormal mental state.

It was also sad to read of the rather appalling & often crude treatments used when psychiatry was still an emerging science, not the popular, developed science it is today, at least in the developed world. As a doctor in India, I am well aware of the abysmal state of mental health care in my country. There is much stigma still attached and good, well-thought facilities are few and hard to come by, if at all. One can still read horror stories where asylum inmates are chained to their beds and suffer in inhuman conditions. Many of them die from non-medical disasters such as fires & floods make rescue impossible and brutal attacks from fellow inmates. Although the situation is in the book is not quite as bad, Dr. Nolan’s crude and disastrous first attempt at ‘shock therapy’ is nevertheless disastrously familiar. Thankfully, science has progressed and with it, our understanding of the human mind and its workings, although both continue to evolve with time.

The fact that the world in general, perceives Esther as a well put together young woman, living the NYC dream, on her way to a successful career and life, is common to many depression stories. I have met people, shocked at an attempted suicide by an apparently ‘normal’ member of the family or a close friend. “But she seemed fine!” they exclaim, taken unaware by a reality that seems alien and contrary to everything they believed and though they knew. I’ve often thought, it makes them feel unsafe and helpless, because their confidence in themselves as astute judges of character is shaken. They don’t know what to believe or think any more and are shell-shocked as a result. Certainly, makes one think about what defines ‘normal’ doesn’t it? Things are a whole lot better now, as awareness increases and relatives are actively and intimately involved in the treatment process, but in countries like India, mentally ill people are still often tragically & unfortunately, labelled ‘mad’.

I love the way Plath illustrates, Elly’s loss of interest in life, her confidence, her perspective, until the whole world appears uni-dimensional. This is one of my favorite Elly quotes, “I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, and this made me even sadder and more tired.” She becomes oblivious to all and everything around her until even the most trivial human interaction becomes unbearable, intolerable. Many people may have trouble relating to the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a single precipitating event that triggers her downward spiral. This is not uncommon in depression, which is most often multi-factorial. However, personally, I think the death of her father, not described in detail in the book, but mentioned often enough in the narrative, to make an impact, is a major contributor. It is easy to see that they were close that she loved him deeply and was loved deeply by him and the fact that he seemed un-mourned by her mother made her exceedingly angry. She refers occasionally in the book, to the fact that she cannot really remember being happy after he died. I love the scene where she cries at his grave and was hoping that that would serve as a positive turning point, where she could gain some sense of closure, but that was not to be.

I am glad the book ends on a note of hope though, otherwise, it would have been a miserable read. Brilliant but miserable! I do wish the cast of supporting characters in Esther’s life had been more fleshed out, but I think Plath describes them from Esther’s point of view, and so we see them only as she does, in turns boring, dumb, stereotypical, conceited, sad, pathetic, lost and confused. I don’t think ‘enjoyed’ is the right word to describe what I felt while reading this book and after. I was completely involved in Esther’s story for the duration of the read and thankful I wasn’t her when it was done! I must say, I thought the title and the inherent analogy, simply brilliant! A must read for those who wish to understand depression from the point of view of the depressed.

A difficult but eternally unforgettable read for me this. Does this make me want to read more Plath…Yes! But probably sometime in the future when I feel strong enough!

6 thoughts on “The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. I am a Plath Freak. I’ve read EVERYTHING….and she is the reason I became a writer.
    I recommed “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.” These journals are beautiful beyond belief. Utterly stunning language & metaphor…. xxx Check it out.

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