Warning: This review does contain explicit ‘spoilers’.
Reading a brief biography of Sylvia Plath upon finishing The Bell Jar, it is easy to determine from where she drew her inspiration for this, her only, novel. Details of her first suicide attempts and mental health treatment resonate strongly for anyone familiar with the ‘fictional’ character of Esther Greenwood.
Plath suffered from clinical depression for most of her adult life and, by her own admission, The Bell Jar mirrors her early experiences of living with the disorder. In writing of the novel to her mother she remarked that she fictionalised details of her own ordeals to ‘add colour’, and that the purpose of this semi-autobiographical story was to ‘free [her]self from the past’. Indeed, one critic remarked that with Plath’s suicide coming so soon upon the novel’s publication (just one month afterwards) there could be ‘few innocent readings’ of this tale of tormenting mental illness.
And yet Plath certainly isn’t lazily scribbling the events of her own college years with little care for narrative development and impact: her narrator, Esther, is an intriguing and complex protagonist. Her vividly off-beat imagery and penetrating observances of the smallest things around her communicate to her readers, from the beginning, her potentially delicate reliability as a narrator. Descriptions of the successes in her life to date, winning scholarships and prizes at every turn, set her up as unconsciously under extreme pressure, preserving a mental balance which might topple easily.
Howard Moss commented in The New Yorker following the publication of The Bell Jar in America that ‘something girlish in its manner betrays the hand of the amateur novelist’; somewhat ironic considering the double standard against women in Plath’s society which the book forcefully attacks. Certainly dramatic events in the novel are sparse, and we follow Esther through minor traumas which are made to seem rather commonplace and trivial, but this portrays a powerful sense of Esther’s numbness, as though she has been desensitised to the painful and blissful incidents alike which she encounters in life.
Her descent into madness or depression (it is never explicitly clear what mental illness Esther is diagnosed with) is felt uncomfortably by the reader as the narrative fragments, with events being introduced in a less logical or chronological pattern; increasingly more often her description of an event will begin with a seemingly irrelevant flashback, or intense focus on one detail of a story, or perhaps the paranoiac focus of her thoughts during its course.
Equally we begin gradually to relax as Esther makes progress. Certain events continue to worry us slightly, or cast doubt on her future prospects and ability to cope, but on the whole, as she moves towards recovery, Plath gives subtle narrative hints which prompt us to appreciate her calmer, improved attitude.
In all, an impressive study of the collective impact of what the Germans term ‘Leistungsdruck’ (‘achievement pressure’), prescribed societal gender roles, and considerations of the future, on mental health.