I was terrified to read this book.
Having studied the poetry of Sylvia Plath during high school and college, I was familiar with her writing, and also knew her tragic life story. I was worried that the book would make me so sad that I wouldn't be able to shake it.
Now, I wish I had read this book earlier.
(I know that a lot of you read this book in high school, but really, there are only so many books you can read, and this one didn't come up. And I think I can appreciate it more now than I would have been able to then.)
The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel, follows Esther Greenwood, 19 years old and a stellar academic, through her descent into depression. Plath refuses to let her character wallow in self-pity. She doesn't want you to feel sorry for her, doesn't want you to pity her. But in the end, she nearly breaks your heart.
Set in the 1950s, at the height of "traditional gender roles," a large struggle for Esther is what is expected of her versus what she wants for herself. She wants a family, wants love, but feels disillusioned by the women around her. She wants to be successful, a poet or a teacher, but has no proof that this is not incompatible with her other desires.
The writing is both simple and provocative. Full of the metaphors that Plath is famous for, the story is both straight forward and poetic. Esther sees her life as a fig tree, each possibility, each choice a ripe fig at the end of branches. But instead of feeling that all these figs are within her reach to harvest, she feels stuck at the trunk, as the figs blacken and fall to the ground.
Told exclusively through Esther's mind, the book offers no relief from the stifling, oppressive air she experiences while under the bell jar. But I have never read a more chilling, accurate, or believable account of depression.
This is a must read for anyone who has dealt with depression on any level, or known anyone with depression.
I came away, not pulled down by the story as I had thought I would be, but amazed and impressed by how fresh the air really is out from under the bell jar.