I've had trouble writing this review. I've been trying for a while, probably a few weeks by now, but this is a difficult one. I think what is most difficult is the fact that I want to express how relatable the main character, Esther Greenwood, is. But at the same time, I hesitate to say that for fear of people thinking that if they relate to Esther, they must be suicidal or suffer from mental illness. That's not at all the case.
Esther is in a transitional phase of life. She's in college but it's time for her to think about her future beyond school. She thinks about and disregards the idea of marriage. She thinks about what kind of career she would like. There's so much she wants to do and learn and know, but she feels limited and stuck.
To be honest, I can't think of a more relatable character than Esther, especially for women who are around my age, in this day, and in this phase of life. Most people graduating college now are facing uncertainty, like Esther. The job market is not great and there aren't many opportunities. Some of us want a lot of things, but are unmotivated to go after them out of fear of failure. Some of us want to learn everything under the sun, but don't know how.
Personally, I feel a great kinship to Esther. No, I do not have suicidal thoughts and I do not suffer from mental illness. But I am around the same age as Esther. I, too, have writing aspirations and I wonder how that will one day balance with my home life. There are many things I want to do and these desires leave me questioning whether or not I have the tools to do them. I know that Esther and I are not alone in these thoughts and feelings and for that reason, I feel that The Bell Jar is essential read for all women, no matter their age or place.
The books starts off in quite an appealing setting. Esther has won a month long, paid internship in New York City for a well known magazine. She lives in a hotel with the other interns and gets to go for fancy lunches, attend events, and explore the city. It does not make her happy and she spends more time skipping work events and falling into deep spirals of worrisome thoughts.
She experiences moments that are necessary in a coming of age tale and, once the internship has ended, she goes back to her hometown in suburban Massachusetts but is eager to leave again. Without anywhere to go, she resigns to a life of sleeping, writing, and worrying about the future. Her writing suffers and she wonders if that is the path she should take after all.
As Esther's mundane, every day life continues to depress her already fragile mental health, suicidal thoughts penetrate her mind and her every moment. Plath's description of Esther's suicide attempt is haunting, difficult to read, and raw. Knowing that Plath took her own life makes the experience of reading her words on the subject even more striking and personal.
Further, reading about Esther's time in a mental hospital is so other worldly that it's hard to believe it is the same story that started with the glamorous idea of working for a magazine in Manhattan. The turn and change in Esther's life is, after all, what makes this story truly disturbing, realistic, and saddening.
The book ends but you get the sense that there really is not resolution. Esther suffers from mental illness and likely always will. She has to live the rest of her life coping with these issues and that is what is the most important takeaway of the entire book.
There are so many more elements to this novel that I have yet to discuss: mental illness, relevancy, feminism, and growing up. I've only given a brief summary with my opinions on this outstanding novel that will always remain relevant in our culture. I hope that everyone who has not yet picked up Plath's novel, the only novel she left for us, will do so quickly.
I will leave you with my favorite Sylvia Plath quote:
"Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences."