211 of 220 people found the following review helpful
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.
257 of 290 people found the following review helpful
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.
203 of 236 people found the following review helpful
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!
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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.
76 of 91 people found the following review helpful
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.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2004
Many readers seem to reject this novel because it offers no clear explanation for the psychololgical collapse it narrates. But nor, from the perspective of the afflicted, is there often any such explanation in real life. I find the way Plath unexpectedly cuts from the hilarious antics of Esther's month in New York City - told in a voice as endearing as Holden Caulfield's - into her sudden depression to be a very effective literary device. Plath doesn't explain what happens so much as she shows us what it feels like. Compare the tone of the first fifty pages to the last and you'll see this is a narrative which gradually unhinges, disintegrates, becomes less and less reliable. This is precisely what you'd expect in a first-person account of a depressive episode. Yes, it can get "boring and repetitive" as many reviewers have noted - and that's an apt representation of the lugubriousness of depression and the traditional treatments for it. There is no simple answer, no easy happy ending for Esther. She is a young person confronting the meaninglessness of life, too intelligent to fall into the easy distractions of marriage and work, but not sufficiently self-knowing to forge her own path without them. That such a path is unclear is part of the point. Hatred for this book seems to come out of a view of life (and literature) as something certain, meaningful, entertaining and closed - precisely the view which Esther, and most depressed people, cannot take. That Plath can put us in her position for a few hundred pages, and show us how puzzling and frightening it can be, is a testament to the strength of her talent.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 2, 2006
I first read this book when I was 12, and to my English teacher's horror: I received the question "Does your mother know you're reading that!?" to which I had the all-too-smug pleasure of being able to honestly reply that "Yes, she does, as she is the one who suggested it."
The Bell Jar is just incredible, hands down. I am not the kind of reader who regards it as a sort of proto-feminist canon, instead, I try to limit myself to taking it in through its most legitimate, face-value feeling. There is a "realness" to it that is just too good.
As poor a context for crediting it with anything positive as it is, it was my first literary introduction to New York City. There are scenes in it that, even now- years later, stand out so clearly in my mind: when she's walking down the street in the midle of the night, drunk out of her mind, and yet somehow lucid enough to find her way home- tracing her hand along the sides of buildings all the way; or the time she stands outside, stories and stories up in the building she's staying in, and proceeds to throw all her clothes out the window, one by one, floating away in the New York midnight breeze.
There is a numbness to the story that trudges along like a silent locomotive: you know the tracks are out ahead and the crash is imminent, you just don't know how, or when, or where, or just how bad it will be. And it is bad, it is really bad, but that's also why it's so good. Not to say that tragedy is a hallmark of literary worth, but the tragedy "works" here because it is just simply too real.
As other reviewers have noted, it is a little disturbing that it ends well, when Plath, herself did not. Yet, in the end, maybe that is the best irony of it? Regardless, it's one of my favorite books.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
To be honest, if there's one thing that I didn't understand in this book, it's the title.
The rest just made perfect sense.
Plath is clearly a poet of some kind. Her writing flows beautifully and lyrically. It has the smooth edge only a poet can achieve in fiction. This is both a positive thing and a negative one. While it makes aspects incredibly well written, it also makes the book a tad bit over-indulgent.
Or, it would, if there wasn't the whole story around it. Without having known Plath's background story when I picked this up, I knew instantly that this was real. Perhaps the name was changed and some things tweaked, but this just breathed so perfectly. I knew that this was honest, open, and true, and the whole world of Sylvia Plath/Esther Greenwood sucked me in.
It went beyond the nice writing. It went into the emotions. I couldn't tear myself away from the book. It made me think, it made me wonder, and it (most of all) made me feel. At times I was disgusted, at times I was amazed, at times I was crying - but I was there all along. It's a vivid, clear account of depression, and a world that is practically unknown.
What's for sure is that this will stay with me for years to come, both in my mind and in my heart. It makes one appreciate life without depression, teaches a lot, and is an overall incredible, breath-taking ride.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
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.