The Bell Jar

It’s 1953 and 19 year old Esther Greenwood has arrived in New York for a months work on a fashion magazine. One of 12 girls who have won a placement through a writing competition, it’s a month of all expenses paid and ‘piles and piles of free bonuses’, there are successful people to meet, finger bowls to learn how to use and plenty of advice about their complexions. They all live together in a women only hotel with cocktails and parties and Buddy Willard and Doreen lounging about in a peach silk dressing-gown.

‘I was supposed to be having the time of my life’

Of course it’s all just a matter of filling in time before getting married, what a ‘dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s’, thinks Esther who yearns to write and travel.

She sees her life mapped out for her, contained by social expectations where she fulfils everyone else’s hopes. But she wants independence so that she can enjoy change and excitement and not be stifled by ‘infinite security’.

But rather than liberate her, the disdain she feels for life around her sends her on a downward slope of depression. She becomes isolated, watching life but not experiencing it, she can no longer feel anything and wonders at her reaction if she was ever to be given the chance to travel,

‘. . . 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.’

First published in 1963 the detailed descriptions of her treatment for depression are a social history of women and mental health in the first half of the 20th century. Her fear of shock treatment and the treachery she feels for the Doctors she has learnt to trust but who prescribe it is heartbreaking. ‘Your mother tells me you are upset’ says Doctor Gordon when he first meets Esther, and I wondered who I hated most, the patronising Doctor Gordon or Esther’s mother for so rigidly following convention?

And what about the other women sitting chatting together in the hospital, how had they got there? were they sent by their mothers or husbands? were they there because they were ‘upset’ or ‘needed a rest’ or were ‘overwrought’?

For a book that is at times harrowing and disturbing I wasn’t expecting it to be so engaging and easy to read from the very beginning or for Esther’s droll wit to make me smile so much

‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.’

I loved the voice of Esther Greenwood, sharp and witty, disallusioned and disdainful and I really wish I had read this when I was 19. I borrowed this copy from my daughters teenage stack of books, but I’m hoping she’ll give me my own copy – Millie are you taking note?!

28 thoughts on “The Bell Jar

    1. That’s interesting because I thought a bit more about the mother when I had finished my review and wondered if I was being fair, since we are just seeing her through Esther’s eyes – but then again she is so governed by social appearance that she can’t support her daughter and has that damning line ‘who’s going to marry you now’ or something like that, which is unforgivable.

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  1. After reading Plath’s diaries and The Bell Jar I decided one day to take a train into London and find her old home in Chalk Farm. The train paused for some minutes just shy of Battersea and a fox appeared out of the shrub at the trackside. It didn’t look up or anything really. It just walked back into the bushes, but I took it as a good omen – something of a shadow of Ted Hughes. From Victoria I took the tube to Camden and walked up past the market into Chalk Farm and then, set on a smart looking square, was a building, converted into flats, with a blue plaque. I had a cigarette and nothing happened, but it felt good. I walked around the square and wondered why I had come here. I remember that there was a coffee shop there and from outside I watched a table of young women laughing and chatting and eating ice cream and drinking coffees. It was sort of a nothing day, but I remember it quite vividly despite it being over 25 years ago.
    x

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  2. I think I probably was about nineteen when I read it, and my memories of it are extremely vague now – maybe it’s time for a re-read! Such a tragic figure, Plath – her poetry is so visceral. And so different from the other, older poets we were being taught in school – I think every one of us in the class had a serious crush on her.

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    1. I bet you did! I haven’t read any of her poetry but while I was reading I did think some knowledge of her poetry might have been helpful, I’m not quite sure why other than it’s all so personal.

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      1. Ted Hughes’ collection The Birthday Letters is worth reading too, after reading some of her poetry. It’s made up of poems he addressed to her over the years following her final successful suicide attempt – kinda gives his side of the story. I’m not a big poetry fan but these two have always had a place in my heart for some reason…

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  3. Gosh, this post brings back memories of the time when I first read this book – I would have been in my early twenties, I guess. As a young, impressionable woman, it had such an impact on me back then, opening my eyes to the some of the darker aspects of life…

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    1. I am really quite envious of you all who discovered it as young women! I wish I had because I would love to be able to compare it now with a re read.

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    1. That’s interesting, I haven’t read any of her poetry yet but am keen to do so. I wonder if reading The Bell Jar helps in an understanding of the poetry (and vice versa)?

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  4. Jane, I read this just a year or so ago and responded to it just as you have. I was not looking forward to reading it but I’m so glad that I did. I’d happily read it again now. I suspect it would have been lost on me had I read it when I was a young woman, although I have vivid memories of reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French when it was first published in 1977 which would have meant I was in my early twenties. That had a profound effect on me. I should probably read that one again now too!

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    1. I’ve been thinking about The Women’s Room recently and having a re-read – after reading The Golden Notebook and watching Mrs America I’ve got a desire to go back to those ’70’s feminist bibles. I think I would have loved The Bell Jar when I was younger, her despair at everything around her but her lackadaisical attitude would have been right up my street! Now I think my attitude was more understanding than visceral, but I need to read it again.

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  5. This is one of those books I’ve had on my ‘must read’ list for years. I think I’ve been anticipating a grim time. You’ve convinced me to put it higher up my wish-list.

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  6. I’ve never read The Bell Jar–it’s been one of those books I’ve always been vaguely aware of, but somehow never made it onto my ‘to read’ list. I think I’ve always thought of it as a title that must be depressing to read, but it sounds like it’s worth a read, despite the themes.

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