in Books Films Television

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – book club

[Some time ago, before I got bogged down with RCPsych membership exams I proposed a sort of online psychiatric book club.  Apologies for the long wait.  The first book is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.]

Any book that mentions executions in the first breath is likely to be only a very qualified celebration of life:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenburgs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

And so it turns out; ‘The Bell Jar’ is the tale of the breakdown of a young woman, Ester Greenwood, told in three parts.  In the beginning Greenwood is away from home and employed as a summer intern on a prominent New York magazine.  Narrated in the first person, she appears delicate and burdened in contrast to her carefree partying peers.  Her stay does not go well, and at the end, having been physically attacked and at the edge of a mental abyss, she is so disillusioned as to throw all her clothes from on high into the street.

In the second act she returns home, is rejected from a writing course, and finds herself increasingly isolated and distressed.  Her mother’s concern leads her to meet a psychiatrist for the first time, Dr Gordon, whose manner Greenwood dislikes and whose ECT treatments she finds traumatic.  As the novel’s middle draws to an end, for several painful pages she contemplates suicide, before finally overdosing in the basement of her family home.  The final chapters chart Greenwood’s progress in a psychiatric hospital.  She forms a more therapeutic relationship with a different psychiatrist and has insulin injections (this, more than almost anything else dates the book) and further, but less troubling, ECT.  She recovers herself, at least in part.  At the book’s conclusion she is to appear at a board meeting to decide on her departure.

To me the novel’s great strength is its intensely personal tone, like having been given permission to read someone’s stolen diary.  As someone who enjoys writing I also find the craft of the writing humbling; Plath’s turn of phrase is often wonderful.  It’s full of poetic similes, ‘drops of sweat crawled down her back, one by one, like slow insects’.  I’ve read the Bell Jar twice; this month and ten years ago.  Ten years ago I thought it was a delicate and wonderful thing, and a book that understood what it was to be misunderstood.  A decade on I still enjoyed it, but less so, as the main characters fragility and sense of utter desolation perhaps appeals to me less now then it did then.  There are some books that are best read during formative years and the Bell Jar may be one of these.  It interested me that there were aspects of the Bell Jar that I missed during my first pass but noticed rereading it.  Ester comes across to me as more selfish and self-involved than before.  I don’t remember noticing before how little background detail Plath gives us on Ester’s life; the men are also sketchy and unsympathetic.  Her father is dead, her brother absent and her relationship with Buddy Willard abortive and a source of resentment.

I saw too how Plath has come to be identified with feminism, as she makes regular protestations over the obstacles faced by women wishing to be more than just an accompaniment to a man.  But Plath’s feminism, like this book, is overshadowed by events in her own life and particularly her own suicide and her relationship with Ted HughesPlath committed suicide a month after the Bell Jar’s publication; at this time she had recently split with Hughes to whom she had been married for seven years.  With this in mind criticism of Plath’s work has been said to resemble a struggle between those who side with Plath and those who side with Hughes.  In a further tragedy, Plath’s son Nicolas Hughes hanged himself on March 16 2009.

I’m very interested to know what readers of this blog make of this book.  Do you think it was a realistic evocation of what it is like to have a depressive breakdown? How did it make your feel? What did you like the best or the least?

Also on the BMJ’s doc2doc, with some good comments


100 best first lines from novels

Bell Jar quotes

Write a Comment


  1. This is one of my favorite books and has been for many years. I read it for the first time in early high school and have re-read it twice since then with the most recent being about 2 weeks ago. I am a senior in college and was performing an excerpt from the suicide for a class. I also get something new out of it every time I read it. The first time, I just liked the story. This last time I began to see all of the issues of her time that Plath was trying to respond to. I noticed how the men in the book were portrayed as distant and cold. I think that was because Plath resented men at the time for being able to do the things she wanted with out having to fight so hard for it. Esther also held this resentment towards men. Esther also seemed very whiny and selfish the last time I read the book, it seemed like she tried to play the victim and blow things out of proportion. This book was also a semi-autobiography of Plath’s own life. After some research on the book, it turns out that most of the people, places, and events in the book were based on Plath’s own life and her decent into madness. All in all I liked your post and I love this book and will probably read it again in the future.