Customer Reviews: The Bell Jar: A Novel
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on December 27, 2002
I personally find Sylvia Plath's journals her most interesting work, but this comes in at a close second. This book will challenge just about anyone who reads it, whether you're depressed or not. If you've never been depressed in the way Esther is, you're going to ask yourself why she torments herself for no reason and perhaps feel that the storyline is implausible. the deeper you go into the book, the less sympathy you'll feel for her. If you HAVE been as depressed as Esther gets, you'll feel challenged for another reason: the book will reach TOO far into your mind and make TOO deep a connection with you because, well, Sylvia Plath describes depression very well. Her writing tends to make you feel like you and no one else are experiencing what she's going through with her, and it's pretty disturbing. However, it's also a quite rewarding experience. A "bell jar" is just a very apt term for a distorted view of the world that presents everything as seemingly inherently bad. Esther lives under one all the time, and she's not truly aware of it. Eventually her life is turned into a constant waking nightmare because she can't even say what's wrong with her. It's painful to read but it makes for some damn good reading. Reading this book will give you a very graphic idea of what it's like to live under a bell jar and what happens to people who live in permanent ones. You probably won't be the same after you read it.
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on February 5, 2000
I read this book immediately following "Girl, Interrupted" by Susanna Kaysen. This was an interesting coincidence because both these novels are (nearly) autobiolgraphical accounts of mental traumas these women suffered in their early 20's. In fact, both women had resided in the same mental hospital during their recuperation. I finished "Girl, Interrupted" a bit confused on how I had ever rationalized spending my time reading such a book in the first place. The author's over-personification of the trite theme of "crazy may be sane" wasn't even accompanied by a plot. Sadly enough, the most interesting part of the novel was the excerpt taken from a psychology textbook describing Kaysen's diagnosis. Then, I picked up "The Bell Jar," not knowing what it was about, and read it. It was everything "Girl, Interrupted" had tried to be and wasn't. The main character's experiences were real and meaningful, and the book itself tried less to shock its readers by trying to include monumental meaning, but instead, simply told its tale in a beautiful and harrowing way that perfectly reverberated the all-too-familiar struggles of a young woman emerging into an unfamiliar world that in its simpleness, conveyed more than even Kaysen could ever fathom being bestowed upon a reader.
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on October 29, 2003
I've been trying to broaden my reading range by throwing in a few classics here and there. One I had been interested in for quite some time is The Bell Jar. And with the Sylvia Plath movie coming out soon, I thought reading this book might be a nice complement to that. And what a real pleasure it turned out to be!
The Bell Jar does not read like a classic - "classic" being the term of very old books with very old language - the description I've always had for the classic genre. This book has a very contemporary writing style, and despite it being written in the 1960s, The Bell Jar's topic of mental illness certainly transcends the generations and can be related by many people no matter when they read the book. I absolutely loved it!
The Bell Jar tells the story of a young Esther Greenwood at the beginning of her mental decline. She first recognizes its oncoming during a summer of interning at a magazine company in New York City. Trying to fit in with the other interns, as well as dealing with boys and co-workers prove to be a struggle at times for Esther. And later, when the real depression and suicidal thoughts set in, readers are invited into a dark and scary world, one created realistically and with honesty by Ms. Plath.
This book ranks high on my list of all-time favorites. I'm so glad I read it. From now on, if people want to read a classic (or a darn good book for that matter), I won't hesitate to suggest The Bell Jar. It's fantastic!
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on June 23, 2005
Like millions of other young women, I'm sure, I came across "The Bell Jar" in college, and I felt an immediate attachment to the book: it uplifted me, angered me, scared me, and made me feel deeply protective, all at the same time.

"The Bell Jar" tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an intelligent college student, as she slowly feels the "bell jar" of detachment and madness overtake her. As Esther goes from a prestigious internship in New York City to a summer at home with her mother in the Boston suburbs, her attachment to reality becomes more and more tenuous, until thoughts of suicide overtake her.

It is no secret that the story has at least a partial basis in reality, and that Sylvia Plath is writing from her own experience is perhaps what makes Esther so deeply real. I recently wrote a review of "Bridget Jones' Diary," and although "The Bell Jar" is undoubtedly a better book, there is a certain similarity between the protagonists: like Bridget, Esther is a character who is almost universally relatable. It does not matter if the reader is psychologically healthy or not: Esther awakens what she is feeling in all of us. My emotional response to "The Bell Jar" was on par with my emotional response to certain real-life events. I was uplifted to find a shared experience; angered at Esther's responses--and at the fact that they seemed reasonable to me; scared at the uncertainty I felt about myself and my own psychological state by the end of the book; and deeply protective--of Esther, of Sylvia Plath, and of every other reader who shared my experience.

I recognize that specifically speaking of the female experience when reading "The Bell Jar" could be considered rather narrow-minded of me. I certainly believe that this book can resonate with men as well, just as "The Catcher in the Rye" can resonate with women. There is something deeply female in Esther's experience, however, and I cannot put into words the extent of my appreciation that Plath was able to give a true voice to this femaleness, without getting defensive and without getting melodramatic.
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As a psychologist, I believe that Sylvia Plath's novel accurately portrays the confusion and disorientation that accompany mental illness. Unfortunately, while the main character, a young college student named Ester Greenwood, rings true, the book itself is as confusing and disorienting as Ester's life. Plath's literary style seems to be to wander from scene-to-scene and present-to-past with little or no transition. The book was so disjointed that at times I looked to see if there were pages missing; how Ester goes from point A to point B is often unclear. Despite this, Ester is a real person undergoing a real struggle with a real disorder. Her thoughts of suicide are described in a simple, matter of fact manner that is extremely honest, and both the positive and negative aspects of her treatment are exposed. The book's ending, while optimistic, is overshadowed by Plath's own eventual suicide; it is the author's own experience and tragedy which makes this largely autobiographical novel a classic.
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on February 19, 2007
In a world of over-medicated persons, "The Bell Jar" delivers what modern medicine cannot... a look into the life of a person without the use of modern medication or therapies. "The Bell Jar" delivers an insight into the world of the depressed woman, then and now. For a person in some sort of depressed state, Sylvia Plath gives us a world in which someone "understands".
While she did not end her life on a good note, for those in need of understanding and not just "a good read", "The Bell Jar" offers a shoulder to lean on... a possible much needed cry.

If you are reading this just as a classic novel, her metaphor and use of grammar to convey her life and loss is at it's peak. She give us a story thick with imagery, location, and tangible emotion. Her vivid scope of mental illness and the lengths one will go to in a chance to feel something other than a sense of loss or anguish, is all at once painful and beautiful. You know exactly where she is coming from, even if you have never experienced it for yourself. She transports us to a place and state of mind that is malicious and elegant... troubled and decadent.

Sylvia's poetry is wonderful, if that is what you are looking for. But it is her novels, short stories, letters, and prose that can send you to a place where even the average person feels a kinship with this tortured soul. And tortured is exactly what she conveys.... those demons that in the end, caught up with her all too soon.
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on May 27, 2000
Frequently, when I read about The Bell Jar, reviewers caomment on the parallels between Esther, and the author. Then they proceed to describe the book's harrowing descent into madness.

I almost hate to burst the bubble, but after reading the book, I find it to be widely misinterpreted. The book is not about Esther's problems, but the problems of the world about her.

When Plath wrote the book, she did so under a pseudonym. Not only, (as many suggest,) to avoid the ire of her friends, whose loosely drawn chariactures pepper this book, but also because of it's biting censure of her male oriented society. I have NO DOUBT in my mind that when Plath wrote the Bell Jar, she had no intentions of killing herself. I think the work should be viewed in that light, and when one does, it takes on a different, and far more profound meaning. Plath still needed to work in her time, so (In my opinion,) she wrote the Bell Jar to attack the restricted role of a woman in society, and she conveniently provided an out for any harsh critic, namely, that the main character is insane. To read it now, and interpret the main character as an insane, or unreliable narrator does a great disservice to what Plath intended for this work.

Plath, like Esther, was perhaps the smartest woman in America during her time. She won countless scholarships, and like Esther, a guest editing slot at Mademoiselle. Now a woman of her talents would be at Harvard on a full ride, but during her day, Esther, and Plath could only hope to someday become the editor of a glamor mag, forever telling women how to tell if their lover is cheating. Not much of an existance for a bright young woman.

Plath vents this frustration in the Bell Jar. Esther sees men all about her that will always be accepted, that will not be held back if they desire to become something irrational, or take on large career goals.

I'm thinking specifically of the birth sequence in the middle, when Buddy and Esther watch Mrs Tomolino give birth to her child. A fat intern says that women shouldn't be allowed to watch a birth, otherwise there'd never be any children. (I am paraphrasing.) Implying their unfitness to be a doctor, (while his own obvious physical limitations are of course, ignored.) What a ridiculous notion. The men assume that Esther will not be able to stand watching the birth but she does well, noting the use of the drug. When she is told that it doesn't kill the pain, but only makes the woman forget it, Esther thinks that this is a perfect example of a man's drug. One that allows the pain to exist, but shuts it away in a dark tunnel, where someday it will rise to swallow the woman. (Again with the paraphrasing.)

Other signs of this exist throughout the work. In fact, one can go as far as to say that every time her life is on track, or Esther is suceeding, the event is derailed in actuality, or symbolically, by man. (I've checked, and it is so.) The image of a bottled baby arises again and again, and Esther later states that she hates the role of mother, because of the restrictions it implies. To give in to the maternal impulse is to chain yourself to a child, to trap yourself, to become the bottled baby. Esther remarks that it is almost as if nature knew about the restrictive world of men, and it agreed, conspiring against her biologically as well.

I think that perhaps the single most telling line in the book is delivered by Buddy, whom I saw as a representative of men in Esther's life. When Esther, and Buddy's earlier girlfriend both end up committed, Buddy asks if there is something about him that "drives women crazy. "

If you read carefully, you'll note that Esther's doctor refutes the question, and dismisses it as a sort of casual "Of course not." Esther simply pushes some foam from the edge of her cup back into the coffee, and says nothing. Not because she agrees with the doctor... Else she would add her comments, but because he speaks the truth, and she knows affirming this will keep her in the asylum.

There is much much more that the enlightened reader may discover on his or her own, and I recommend that everyone who has read this book in their adolescent fits of suicidal fantasy, should return to the work with an eye towards its social commentary. I think you'll find the work to be stimulating, and still (sadly) relevant today. I only wish that Plath had found the strength to live though her troubles. We would still be reading her book, and revering it as a classic, but uncolored by her own experiences, the book could be freed of our society's focus on Esther's suicide attempt, and more on the conditions that created it, which definitely were NOT in her head.
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on March 24, 2009
A largely autobiographic novel, The Bell Jar is a story of depression and mental illness. Esther is a poor student from a small town, on a scholarship to do guest editing for a New York magazine. Her time in New York, obsession with the power than men have over her, and own apathy gradually lead to a mental breakdown. Institutionalization, shock therapy, and suicide attempts follow, all closely mirroring Plath's own history. Written honestly, with great skill and talent, The Bell Jar gives insight into depression and mental illness and tells a very personal, depressing, unique story. It's a hard book to sum up and even to talk about, but I recommend it very, very highly to all readers.

As fascinating as this book was, as clear as the writing is, I find it difficult to talk about. The Bell Jar is perhaps the best memoir/book on depression and mental illness, providing a very human, realistic, and identifiable view of depression from the inside out. Plath writes so clearly that it is impossible not to understand her protagonist and the events in her life. As such, it's an informative, invaluable novel which allows the reader to understand, even experience, a point of view that would otherwise be unknown to them--and so it can be a very emotional book to read.

Besides this measure of intrinsic value, the novel simply reads and moves well. It is a memoir, not an detective story or a romantic novel, and as such the plot isn't the focus: rather, it is characters and experiences that matter. The honest, gritty memoir is reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye (although, I would say, much better). But the story is still compelling: not matter how gritty, even through the mental breakdowns, Esther is so well-written that the reader ca identify and sympathize with her throughout. Furthermore, the text reads smoothly and quickly while still chronicling some truly harrowing and depressing events. The book is compelling, well-written, and worthwhile not only as a memoir of depression but also as a skillful novel.

The rest of my thoughts about the text are lengthy rambles on women, madness/mental illness, and writing, but they are out of place here. The only thing to leave you with is a strong recommendation of The Bell Jar. Read it--there's nothing more complex than that. It is an accessible novel, both in length and writing style; it is skillful, a masterly work; the description of depression, of treatment, of interaction with the rest of the world is worthwhile for anyone to read. I highly recommend this book and am very grateful that I finally got around to reading it myself.
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on August 11, 1998
Sylvia Plath has always managed to chill me and amaze me with her awesome talent with words, but until you have read The Bell Jar, you haven't experienced the full mastery of Sylvia Plath. I received The Bell Jar last year on my 14th birthday and when I first read it, it was like yet another slap in the face delivered by Sylvia. This book is a huge reality check and yes, like Sylvia's other works, it can be quite disturbing at times. The Bell Jar doesn't try to amuse you by saying that the world is a big happy place like many other novels do. It deals with reality - real issues and real fears surrounding a young woman searching for an identity in a harsh, unrelenting world. Sylvia Plath isn't afraid to tell you what the world is really like and how it can break a woman who's future seems a bright one. But the character's (Esther Greenwood) transitions from sanity to insanity are so subtle that it is difficult to distinguish the two at times. The Bell Jar is a look into the human mind that is dark and sadly cynical at times, but it is a novel that anyone can relate to. Everyone is searching for an identity just as Sylvia's Esther Greenwood was. And anyone can cross the thin line that separates sanity from insanity, just as Sylvia Plath did.
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on December 31, 2013
I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I found it so vividly affecting that I must acknowledge Plath’s genius.

The only other time I’ve been so psychologically stirred by a book is when reading Dostoevsky—so it’s no coincidence that Plath studied Dostoevsky and was steeped in his writing. Long after I’ve finished books by Dostoevsky, when I can no longer recount the plot, I can describe in detail the exact emotional tenor the book produced in me. I imagine “The Bell Jar” will have a similar lasting effect. (The main difference between Dostoevsky and Plath is that Dostoevsky’s works have a redemptive aspect, whereas Plath’s book ends with the foreboding anticipation that “the bell jar”—the metaphor for her depression—will descend again.)

To anyone who has been depressed, think carefully about whether you want to read this book. Read it because then you will know that at least one other person in the world has understood the numb, mindless despair of depression. Don’t read it because it will take you there—you will be plunged into depression’s darkness and left without a solution.

I don’t resonate with Plath’s view of the world, and I don’t have to look very far into her life to see that she was incredibly disturbed, but this is an important book. Important because of the themes it addresses at a timely period in history: mental illness, mental illness and women, women and careers. And, also, important as a work of art—Plath’s prose is masterful and evocative.
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