I was expecting Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar to be depressing, and it was—just not as depressing as I’d expected.
I don’t think I’d read anything by Sylvia Plath, but I had the impression that she was famous for poetry relating to depression and death, and that this famous book had some kind of morbid theme. I also had the impression that Plath was the author of “Resumé”, a memorable and oddly charming poem about suicide that turns out to be by Dorothy Parker.
The novel tells the story of Esther, a nineteen-year-old college student in the US who has been sent to work at the office of a New York City fashion magazine for one month. The story follows her anguished personal struggle with others’ expectations of her and with her own professional and romantic ambitions.
The novel did not impress me favorably overall, but I attribute that judgment to my personal taste for happier content.
For more about when and why I read the novel and what stood out (including a detailed plot summary in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat), see below.
My Beat Sheet for The Bell Jar
- Opening Image: Esther feels detached–she’s not having as much fun as she feels she is expected to have.
- Set-up: Esther lives in a kind of hotel for women during her one-month internship. The magazine has arranged a variety of glamorous events for the girls.
- Theme Stated (?): Esther talks to the magazine editor and realizes she has somewhere along the way relinquished her dream career without noticing.
- Catalyst: Esther spends time with Doreen, who’s a bad influence on her.
- Debate: Esther isn’t sure whether she should be like Doreen or follow the rules and do what she thinks she should do, in work and romance.
- Break into Two: Esther goes to visit her sweetheart. She tells him she’s never going to get married and claims to be neurotic.
- B Story: The story of Esther and her high school sweetheart, Buddy, is mostly told through flashbacks. Buddy, who is recovering from TB, once disappointed Esther by admitting he had had an affair with a waitress.
- Promise of the Premise: Esther struggles with her career and romantic identity. She cries when posing with a rose representing her future as a poet. A man with a diamond pin almost rapes her.
- Midpoint: Esther throws out her city clothes and leaves NYC. She finds out she has been rejected by the summer writing program she applied to. Esther arrives home and has nothing to do, no reason to leave home or even leave her bed. Her mother fails to interest her in learning shorthand. Esther tries to write but has nothing to write about.
- Bad Guys Close in: Unable to sleep even with the help of pills, she is referred to a psychiatrist, who she hates for his smugness, and who recommends electroshock treatment. Esther begins to think of suicide. Jumping and seppuku have no appeal.
- All is Lost: The doctor gives her the electroshock treatment, which hurts her and reminds her of a time she accidentally electrocuted herself with an old lamp. She refuses to repeat the treatment, which her mother takes as a positive sign. However, Esther has resolved that she will kill herself. She buys razor blades and practices cutting herself once on the leg. She tries drowning herself at the seaside by sitting on the shore and by swimming away from it. She rejects the idea of a gun as being too problematic. She finds hanging and asphyxiation similarly impracticable. She volunteers at a hospital but it doesn’t cheer her up. She visits her father’s grave. She contemplates becoming a nun or confessing her suicidal thoughts to a Catholic priest despite not being Catholic. She runs out of money.
- Dark Night of the Soul: Esther nearly succeeds in killing herself by hiding in a hole in the basement and taking a bunch of sleeping pills. She wakes in a hospital, is horrified by her image in the mirror and breaks it. She is transferred to another hospital, where she makes mischief. Her mother promises to try to get her transferred somewhere better.
- Break into Three: The woman who sponsored Esther’s writing scholarship pays for her treatment at a fancy asylum. Esther meets Joan, her sweetheart’s girlfriend, who has also gone crazy and tried to kill herself.
- Finale: Esther and Joan slowly improve with treatment and are gradually allowed back into the world. Esther acquires a birth control device and then finally manages to lose her virginity (to a mathematician), but hemorrhages dangerously. With Joan’s help, she reaches the hospital. Shortly after she recovers, she is told Joan has been found dead. Buddy visits Esther and asks if she thinks he drives women crazy. She says it’s not his fault. She makes the mathematician pay for her emergency hospital treatment and vanishes from his life. She attends Joan’s funeral.
- Final Image: Esther goes before a panel of doctors for an interview. If it goes well, she will be released from the asylum for good.
(The beat sheet was designed for movies. In theory, it should work for a book, but books—even short ones—have more detail. This novel doesn’t relate events in strictly chronological order, so I wasn’t exactly sure how to divide up the fist half of the novel. Also, I couldn’t identify matching opening and final images.)
Although the narration does reflect some strange perceptions on the part of the protagonist, I’m relieved to say it is quite understandable, in contrast to, say, the narration in The Trial by Franz Kafka. There are a couple of truths, however, which I think readers have to read between the lines to see.
Esther’s apparently lesbian friend Joan, who collected news clippings when Esther went missing and was found to have attempted suicide, may have been copying Esther when she attempted suicide herself. Also, she may have killed herself in the end because her romantic overtures to Esther were rejected. Joan says “I like you” and Esther responds harshly that she does not like her in return.
Esther says she thought maybe Joan was a figment of her imagination, but I don’t think she is. I think she is just a kind of character foil, one who does not successfully turn her life around as Esther does.
What stood out
- You know that the narrator lives because she is telling the story from the future and refers to having had a child. I suppose you could say that knowing she survives kills the suspense, but I think knowing there’s a happy ending is what makes the whole thing even bearable to read.
- I resent Freud’s influence over decades worth of novels that refer to concepts and practices from the fields of psychology and psychiatry and dearly wish we could excise him from history.
- The prices mentioned for lodgings, food, transportation and apparel only made sense in relation to each other, but must have been more meaningful for contemporary readers. I felt distanced.
- The types of lives available to women, at least as seen from the perspective of the narrator, sounded awfully constrained, despite the availability of higher education and birth control.
- What I most identified with was the plight of the successful student who reads impossible-sounding job descriptions and tries to see what lies beyond the end of her studies… and can’t.
- Esther’s halfhearted suicide attempts sounded comically similar to that Dorothy Parker poem. You might as well live, indeed.
- What also comes to mind is a poem by Emily Dickinson that begins, “Pain has an element of blank”. I suppose there are infinite realms of apathetic misery under a bell jar.
I had some help from online cliffs notes and study guides on this.
- mind vs. body
- purity vs. impurity
- women’s roles in society
- ambition and identity
- the bell jar = mental illness, confinement
- mirrors and photos = identity
- the fig tree = separation, fall from grace, failure
- blood = transition and pain
- beating heart = life, survival, will to live
When and why I read it
Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it.
Genre: Fiction (literary fiction)
Date started / date finished: 17-Apr-2016 to 18-Apr-2016
Length: 288 pages
ISBN: ASIN B0105VDUQ4
Originally published in: 1963
Amazon link: The Bell Jar