After being assigned to read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my Intro to Literary Studies class, I picked up the novel and instantly became hooked. However, prior to opening the book itself, we looked into the biographical side of Plath first. There are many different oppositions to doing this. Some say that it ruins your idea of the novel, others say it enhances your overall reading experience. To me, already being aware of the fact that she gassed herself by sticking her head in the oven gives me a pretty general idea of what her works will be like.
The many biographical views of Plath range from works that discuss her life and her work, while others say that her work depended on her life; in other terms, she wouldn’t have been able to write what she did if she didn’t experience the things she experienced. Other scholars believe that her life even depended on her work. Whatever the case may be, having in depth insight into Plath’s life before reading The Bell Jar may have spoiled it a bit from the beginning, however you do not really get first hand insight into the inner workings of Plath’s mind until you read The Bell Jar (unless you’ve read her poems or journal, of course, but that’s a different story).
Sylvia Plath’s published journals state “I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love’s not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person. But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’lll ever have. And you cannot regard your own life with objective curiosity all the time…” (8).
In other words, Plath wishes to have options; to experience all sorts of things, for the sole fact that she has a desire to write about them. This brings into question why madness is always so often closely related to the creative process. Writing is painful, and more often then not, a writer spends years on end working, writing, waiting for that one “Ah-ha!” moment to fall upon them. Then, their next duty is to execute this profound idea to the best of their ability– sounds maddening, right?
To me, The Bell Jar is a closer look at Sylvia Plath’s life and mind, while looking at it through someone other than “herself.” Although it can be argued that Esther is a clear-cut representation of Plath herself, and The Bell Jar is simply Plath’s biography, reading the novel helps the reader become more engaged in the novel, and relate to it much more. The novel also gives the reader a chance to be sympathetic and/or empathetic towards Esther, her actions, her thoughts, and her overall experiences.
As heart-wrenching, raw, and blunt this novel is, I haven’t read a novel that shows a more accurate depiction of the transition from sanity to mentally ill. From traveling to New York City with a fantastic opportunity to write, to not being able to sleep or eat or write or even think after a few months, you can see the transformation in the way Esther speaks from the beginning, in the way she acts and reacts, and in the way she doesn’t react to certain things you would expect her to. The fight to go against social expectations and constructs that were placed on women in the 50’s seems more maddening now after finishing this novel.
In a world where women were educated solely to help their man in the best way possible, and were practically forced into starting a family as soon as they could, for a woman who didn’t want any of that– life was practically impossible. Esther’s powerful character represents the instability of a woman coming of age, who wants everything but what society expects her to want. As Esther grows as a character throughout the novel, it’s almost impossible to feel no sympathy towards her when things don’t go her way.
The Ball Jar is a classic, and a great read for anyone. Reading biographies on Plath and now her novel make me even more interested into her as a person, what compelled her to write, and what compelled her to live the way she did. Her strong, passionate personality and fervent characteristics show through Esther so clearly, it’s almost impossible to deny. Whether Plath wrote The Bell Jar as her bibliography or not, picking up this novel not only opens your eyes to Plath’s life, but also the life of someone who is considered mentally ill. The Bell Jar is a harsh, honest, real good read!