The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It is all in Esther Greenwood’s head. A neurotic over-achiever who made it to the top but didn’t know where to go from there. Lost like a race horse without a race track. Brought up by the pressures and high expectations of her middle class Christian mother, her life was crowded with unnecessary benchmarks that pushed her closer and closer to the edge. From good grades, awards, scholarships; one fig from the fig tree just wasn’t enough for her, she wanted them all.

She wanted to be a famous poet, a brilliant professor, an editor of a prosperous magazine, she wanted the perfect husband and beautiful children. She wanted all or none. And gradually she saw that time waited for no one and the figs withered out of her reach one by one.

“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything. It is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing”

A fragile mind, tightrope walking through life, trying very hard to make it to the other side in one piece, to become something big while juggling numerous goals and not knowing when to stop. When suddenly her first rejection makes her lose her balance, the rope tips and all that’s left is that rancid feeling of inadequacy, emptiness and failure. Her achievements turn frivolous. Her dreams sound fickle to her own ears. And there at that point. She feels stranded in a bell jar. Imprisoned by her own expectations, her mother’s and the worlds.

So going back to the first sentence of this review. This book takes you inside that very bell jar, in the broken mind palace of not only Esther Greenwood’s but also Sylvia Plath’s. The author shared much of her own personal life and her own struggle with depression and suicide. I once read somewhere, that depression is living in a body that fights to survive with a mind that tries to die, and this daily tug of war is enough to break any person. Her honesty was brutal and piercing, so much that I felt burdened by her pressures. That metaphorical suffocation was vivid enough to attract the right kind of empathy and understanding towards Esther, Esther new depression because Sylvia knew it. But the reality is and will always be, is that she was a prisoner of her own mind.

“because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” 

This book is written in first person. Therefore, this book is full of Esther’s own thoughts and opinions. More complaints, more inflated problems but hardly any solutions, because this is written in the words of a character in constant depression. Although the book ends in a positive note, it is sad that Esther shows no personal realisation or reconciliation of recovery and I guess that is where it leaves me blank and dissatisfied.

At the end of it I feel this book is a sad oxymoron for Plath. Because where Esther might have recovered, Sylvia did not. Funnily I related this directly to the irony I felt from listening to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t matter if you’re black or white”. Why write a hopeful ending when you didn’t believe in it for yourself? Regardless Sylvia, I hope you found peace and that to me, is the most important fig of all.

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