I’d been interested in reading this for a while. I knew the background of Sylvia Plath and had a good friend who rated her as one of her favourite writers. But it did take me a while to come round to reading it. I think I was partly intimidated by its modern classic status, and the fact that its author was a poet in the 50s and 60s made me think the language may be a little too flowery for me. Then, of course there’s the bleak subject matter, of one woman’s very real battle with depression. I have to admit, I was concerned it would just be someone wallowing in self-pity, with no real storyline to speak of.
I was wrong, and I’m so glad I read this book. Usually don’t like stories without a strong plot, twists and turns, but with this novel I was entranced by the writing alone. Sylvia Plath’s only novel tells the story of Esther, a 19 year old student on a placement at a fashion magazine in New York. She should be having the time of her life. But she’s not.
The plot is interesting in its own right; I enjoyed reading about the parties and glamour of the interns at the fashion magazine, and equally enjoyed reading about life in an institution, albeit in a different way. The novel provides an interesting portrayal of how mental illness was perceived and managed at the time, when electric shock therapy was still in its prime.
I found myself fascinated by the writing style I had been wary of; Plath uses delicate, eloquent prose. It’s littered with figurative imagery but it never feels misplaced, as it can do with other writers. There’s not a wrong word or a pointless sentence in this entire novel.
I particularly liked the symbolism of the fig tree, which she illustrated beautifully.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”
Esther sees herself sitting under the fig tree, starving to death because she can’t choose just one. As she deliberates, the figs decay and drop from the tree, until she is left with nothing.
It’s a beautiful and relatable metaphor for life. Of course, the landscape has changed for women since this novel was written, and now we should be able to see that we can pick more than one fig from the tree, rather than struggle as Esther does with the dilemma of choosing just one.
The way she looks at life in this novel is so different to anything I’ve ever considered before. The tone is not sad in the way I’d expected, more empty; detached from reality. The writer does not wallow in feelings but relays her thoughts and perceptions of the world, in an impassive, deadpan manner. Esther/Plath scrapes away the veneer of everyday existence, revealing the banality beneath. Her outlook is cynical, but in many ways realistic. But as she descends into her true breakdown and the depression she refers to as the bell jar – “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” – her deliberate nature becomes more disturbing. She describes her multiple suicide attempts with calm. Her mind disintegrates so gradually that it is impossible to pinpoint when it really starts; there is no defining line between Esther pre and post-breakdown.
It’s been said by many that this novel is semi-autobiographical, and you can’t help but think of the author’s fate as you read it. At one point, Esther sits down to tackle writing her own book, saying; “My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.” Is this what Plath also thought about her own protagonist?
Knowing Plath’s fate, it’s a hard read. Although it forms a coming-of-age novel, as Esther comes full circle and escapes the Bell Jar, the hopeful ending is made bittersweet and tinged with the knowledge that the author committed suicide just a few weeks after the novel’s publication.