“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I finally got around to The Bell Jar. I had been interested in the novel for decades. It’s about a young woman’s battle with severe suicidal depression. Because of my own battles with the disease, I was a bit afraid of the novel, and it is often suggested that Plath was unrelentingly gloomy. I bought into this negative image of Plath, but I now know that portrait of her is unfair.
It is widely known the novel is, more or less, a roman à clef. The protagonist Esther Greenwood is really Sylvia Plath herself. In the beginning, Esther is not unlike many young people just about to leave school. She’s insecure. She feels alienated. She has doubts about the future.
Esther is a smart girl with a passion for literature, poetry in particular. She is used to doing well and winning prizes and accolades for her academic and artistic accomplishments. She won a scholarship to go to college, and the summer after her junior year, she was allowed to work at a women’s magazine in New York for a month. This was the summer the Rosenbergs were executed, an event that troubles Esther. Esther is put up at a women’s hotel, given expensive clothes and sent to parties and fashion shows.
The trouble is, Esther is rather put off by her experiences in New York. She finds the young women around her to be vapid and conformist, and she isn’t interested in fashion. The only thing she seems to enjoy is the chance to eat expensive food in a nice restaurant. Esther pigs out, and the scene is rather comical. Yes, I found myself laughing while reading Sylvia Plath. Imagine that. Unfortunately, the rich dinner gives Esther and the other girls food poisoning.
Esther’s supervisor at the magazine has a frank talk about her prospects. Esther imagines herself becoming a poet and a professor. But she knows that she can’t support herself by writing poetry, and advanced degrees and a teaching position seems a long way off and not at all guaranteed. So she tells the woman that maybe she could work in the publishing industry, but the editor informs her that the business is quite competitive, and she needs to be sophisticated, worldly, and she needs to speak several foreign languages. Esther doesn’t know any foreign languages, and even though she’s intelligent and a good student, she’s naïve and inexperienced. While in New York, she orders random drinks because she has no idea what she might like.
Esther can’t rely on her family to support her while she figures everything out. Her father died when she was 9 and didn’t leave any insurance. Her mother has had to support Esther and her brother by teaching typing and shorthand. Esther’s mother is supportive, but she wants Esther to be practical. She’d like Esther to learn shorthand so she’ll have a marketable skill after college. Esther can’t think of any job she would want that would involve shorthand.
Nearly everyone, including Esther’s mother, expects Esther to get married and have children. But Esther can’t imagine being a mother and a poet. Esther does have a boyfriend, and by the standards of the 1950s, he is a great catch. Buddy is handsome and athletic, and he’s in medical school. Buddy is going to be a doctor.
Buddy, however, doesn’t take Esther’s enthusiasm for literature seriously. Like many literal science-minded types, he doesn’t relate to artistic expression. He tells Esther that her poetry is dust, and she’ll lose interest once she becomes a mother.
Esther decides to break up with Buddy after he tells her he had a sexual relationship with a waitress the previous summer. She isn’t jealous. In fact, she understands Buddy’s desire to engage in sexual experimentation. But she resents the fact that he has been presenting himself as pure and a great believer in traditional values. Esther wants to have sex, too. Not because of lust. She wants the experience, and she wants to be Buddy’s equal. However, in 1950s America, it was permissible for a “nice” boy to have sex, but a girl who had sex before marriage was a slut.
Before his confession, Buddy gives Esther a tour of medical school. Esther is exposed to death and disease, and she is also allowed to watch a baby being born. The mother is in terrible agony, but Buddy tells Esther she has been given a drug which will make her forget the pain. Esther doesn’t like that. She thinks women should be allowed to remember the pain so that they’ll know what they’re in for the next time they’re pregnant.
Esther goes out with a couple of men with the intention of gaining sexual experience. The first man is nice, but he is uninterested in sex with Esther. The second man hates women and attempts to rape Esther.
Esther wants to take part in a summer writing workshop after her job in New York is over, but she’s turned down. Esther is forced to move back home with her mother for the rest of the summer.
This is when Esther’s depression really kicks in. She stops eating and sleeping. She stops taking care of herself, and she loses interest in everything. She can’t even read because she can’t concentrate.
Esther is sent to a psychiatrist, an attractive young man who isn’t really interested in Esther. He tells her how all the girls at her school are “pretty.” He prescribes electroshock, but the treatment is poorly administered, and Esther is wide awake during the procedure. Esther wonders what she could have done to deserve such a punishment. (And remember, Esther has been worrying about the Rosenbergs.) After the procedure, the psychiatrist once again patronizes Esther by telling her all the girls at her school are pretty.
Esther thinks psychiatry and the shock treatments are like the drug given to pregnant women. They cover up the pain rather than address the underlying problem.
After the treatment, Esther becomes suicidal and eventually nearly succeeds in killing herself, but her mother finds her in time, and she’s sent to a private hospital where she’s treated by an understanding doctor. This woman supports Esther’s literary ambitions, and she understands Esther’s desire to engage in sex with men she doesn’t necessarily love or want to marry. She assists Esther in attaining a diaphragm. Esther is given insulin and more shock treatments, but this time the treatments are properly administered, and Esther recovers from her illness and returns to school.
Esther has a lot of stress in her life. Few people understand her, and she is pressured to be someone she isn’t. She’s young and inexperienced, and her family doesn’t have any money, so Esther will soon have to support herself. But Plath wants us to understand that it is the disease that pushes Esther over the edge, not Esther’s mother, or Buddy, or sexism, or 1950s conformity, or economics, or traumatic events.
Seventy years before Plath wrote her novel, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in which a woman is driven insane by the expectations and constraints placed on her as a woman at the time. Plath directly addresses the expectations and constraints placed on Esther in 1950s America, but Esther’s illness isn’t a literary device. It’s a real disease that comes on top of everything else, and not all professionals can be trusted to help. In fact, some might do more harm than good.
So what is the bell jar in this context? That is Plath’s remarkably accurate way to describe clinical depression. It comes down over you, blocking you off from the rest of the world and distorting your impressions of it. Even after the depression lifts, the bell jar continues to hover overhead, and it might descend on you again.
Plath finished college and won a Fulbright Scholarship. She married a fellow poet, taught for a while, got some of her poetry published and had two children. Sadly, she found herself trapped in the bell jar again on February 11, 1963. She suffered from depression, but she was so much more than a mere depressive.