The Bell Jar is the story of a young woman who has a mental breakdown and has the further misfortune to have it during the late 1950s when ‘doctors’ were fond of things like lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
We follow Esther Greenwood around as she finds life a bit too much to deal with and tries to kill herself. She comes to think of her world as being muffled by a bell jar that has been lowered over her head, so that the world she sees is distorted and not quite as it should be.
One thing leads to another and she finds herself in a mental institute where she undergoes electroshock treatment and meets another patient who tells her how nice and calm she is now that she’s had a lobotomy. She also meets up with an old school friend who is happy to see her and has a collection of newspaper clipping dealing with Esther’s disappearance and attempted suicide. Esther doesn’t really like this other person, but she is better than the rest of the women in the hospital.
Near the end of The Bell Jar, Esther decides it’s about time to lose her virginity and she goes to a doctor to get a fitting. We are never told exactly what this fitting is for, but it seem to be an IUD, especially since Esther is injured while having sex shortly afterwards and can’t stop the bleeding. This was the most vivid and disturbing bit of the book for me.
The Bell Jar was an interesting read, the depressing personal story told in self obsessed first person. But for me this didn’t really work. Esther was too rational and too self aware at all times. We had to be constantly told that she had a bell jar of depression over her head, as we seldom saw any evidence of it. And maybe that was part of the point, she wasn’t really mad, she was just young.
Sylvia Plath killed herself while busy writing poetry and working on what she hoped would be a ‘real’ novel not long after finishing The Bell Jar-according to the short bio at the end of the book.