There are a number of reasons for which this book is famous, but my favorite is that The Bell Jar is the only novel ever written by Sylvia Plath, who has only published two other works (both are books of poetry). In fact, Plath took her own life about a month after The Bell Jar was published, famously putting her head into the oven and turning it on. Her novel is semi-autobiographical, as it follows her life story, changing only the names of her acquaintances and the mental health treatments that the main character, Esther, endures.
While the plot of the novel is intriguing, the most important aspect for me was psychological. The main character, Esther Greenwood, compares life to a bell jar, suffocating her when it covers her completely, and letting her breath when lifted. The bell jar’s meaning has been debated, but I believe that it symbolizes the box that society and Esther’s own perfectionist ideology create. Esther actually spirals into a depressive state, and this peaks when she attempts suicide via overdose in her other’s basement, almost exactly like Plath did with her mother’s sleeping pills under her house in 1953.
After her suicide attempt, Esther spends some time at a mental institution, where she is prescribed electroshock therapy, which was a form of therapy for depression used in the 1950s, in which electric shocks were administered until the patient had a seizure. Guess who else was prescribed electroshock therapy for years? Sylvia Plath- the sheer number of details that match between the novel and its author are the reasons for the novel being called semi-autobiographical.
Overall, this novel is absolutely fantastic, and I would certainly recommend it or anyone looking for a mental and psychological eye-opener. Plath’s detailed insight into mental illnesses that women suffered through during the early to mid-1900s as well as the treatments for these illnesses is truly awakening to the mind. A true work of art, The Bell Jar is a perfect novel for someone looking for psychological semi-fiction.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.