The Bell Jar

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The first day of 2017 passed quietly in an illness induced haze of reading, napping, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Not all bad, as I got a good start on the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon. Running from January 1st to 15th, I’m attempting to read 7 different books by diverse authors with diverse characters.

I started with the Expecto Patronum category, and my book of choice was The Bell Jar.

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I chose Plath’s novel as I also suffer from depression, but haven’t ever read a book that sets out to depict it. Not only was Sylvia Plath depressed, the book itself is part-autobiographical. Though the main character is fictional, the story is based on Plath’s own experiences surrounding her 1953 suicide attempt and admittance to an asylum.

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Before the book begins, there is a short introduction that gives the reader a biography of Plath’s life. It seems to be there so the reader realises how many of the true events of her life were used fictitiously in the novel. It certainly made me reflect more on the book as if it were, in fact, a biographical account of events.

I found the structure of the novel striking as it flitted from one topic to another. The narrative was mostly linear, but sometimes doubled back to depict a previously unseen past event as Esther (the main character) mused about it. It was very organic, and I found that the story moved along at a reasonable pace.

It was only in the past year that I came to terms with the fact that I was struggling with depression, and that it was okay to seek help for it. Esther, however, is mired in her depression in a time where plenty of people would think you insane or deluded for having symptoms of mental illness. The 1950’s weren’t especially kind to women, and when you throw in depression you get a mess of issues.

The description of depression as a ‘bell jar’ in which Esther was trapped was spot on, as were her sometimes erratic thoughts, and the difficulty she had accomplishing even routine tasks. Considering the time period, Esther got off relatively well – she was never sent to a state facility, which was definitely a blessing. However, she was administered shock treatments incorrectly, which alters her perception of psychiatry and of asylums.

It was interesting to read about the difference between shock treatment done wrong, and done right. I did a little research, and spoke to someone who knows someone who has had shock treatments, and I was surprised to learn that ECT is still administered today. It can actually be an effective treatment for certain metal illnesses, as long as it is done correctly. As depicted in the novel, it can lift the bell jar of depression and give a reprieve of the symptoms.

Sometimes this reprieve lasts forever, and sometimes the patient must come back for more rounds of treatment. After reading, I definitely wondered if Sylvia Plath would have lived had she been mentally able to seek out more treatment or help. It was a sobering thought.

Esther’s muddled friendships and relationships were relatable, and her thoughts about people at times grim and at times laugh out loud funny. Considering her attitude towards purity and the hypocrisy of impure men who seek pure brides, I understand how this came to be considered a feminist novel. But it was the depictions of mental illness that really struck me and stayed.

Esther, with her depression and suicide attempts. Joan, whose life almost mirrors Esther’s, save that it is tragically even shorter. Valerie, who had a lobotomy and is content to stay in the asylum for the rest of her life. Miss Norris, who never speaks, and gets downgraded to a worse facility.

Women like this have always existed, and exist still to this day. It is important that we recognise that mental illness is real, and that people aren’t always able to seek help to manage it. Whether it be lack of funds, lack of support, or lack of understanding, there are many who end up in terrible situations because they don’t have help.

Mental illness is still extremely stigmatised, though many are now realising the importance of speaking up about it. The Bell Jar is a novel that I would recommend to anybody who seeks a better understanding of depression, or who thinks that if you ‘just have a positive attitude’ that you won’t suffer from it anymore. It’s time to educate yourself, and see the world from someone else’s perspective.

This was a fantastic start to my Readathon, and I can’t wait to continue with the next book.

Are you participating in the DAReadathon? What is your Expecto Patronum pick? Let me know in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “The Bell Jar

  1. This was a really moving review and I enjoyed reading about your views of this classic. I would recommend a couple of other books that deal with this subject – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Faces in the Water by Janet Frame. You are totally right that we need to remove the stigma and that people need to be educated about it. I wish you all the best! Bronte

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