The Bell Jar tells the story of the mental breakdown of college girl Esther Greenwood in 1950s America, portraying events and experiences strikingly similar to those in Sylvia Plath's own life between June 1953 and February 1954.
The highly autobiographical content of the novel naturally leads one to wonder whether it is best read with, or without, prior knowledge of Plath's life history, but it is difficult to come to any definitive judgement on this point: at one level, it is undeniably true that an understanding of certain aspects of The Bell Jar is enhanced by knowledge of situations and people in Plath's own life; at the same time, such knowledge may detract – and distract – from a work of fiction which should be judged in its own terms, not in the context of its author's real-life experiences.
The Bell Jar deals with highly traumatic and disturbing events (including a suicide attempt and electroconvulsive therapy), yet it is by no means a 'heavy' or depressing book. On the contrary, it is both entertaining and witty, characteristics maintained throughout by Esther Greenwood's cynical, sarcastic, lively, debunking tone as she relates her experience of life in the confines of her metaphorical 'bell jar'.
Amongst the highlights of the novel is the insight into American life in the 1950s. In particular, the novel throws light on what was expected of young women at that time in terms of dating and sexual behaviour. Most of all, we are made aware of the contradictions in societal attitudes, which made young women feel inadequate if they could not guarantee themselves a Saturday night date; but made them feel socially unacceptable should dating lead to sex or, worse, pregnancy. Moreover, whilst women were encouraged to feel that they must be highly educated and capable of successful careers, they were also expected to sacrifice all of this when claimed by 'Mr. Right', resigning themselves to 'getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee' and then 'dawdling about' in their 'nightgown and curlers' after he'd left for work.
In passing, we also learn about other aspects of American life: the college system, clothes, food, alcohol, music, films, and all the paraphernalia of day-to-day life which give a distinctive feel to a particular culture at a particular time. We are not shielded from the darker side of American society: the use of the electric chair; the primitive methods for dealing with mental illness; and male violence towards women. The social and cultural structure of American life is viewed, of course, in the context of Esther Greenwood's increasing alienation from – and rejection of – the norms of that structure; and through this constant juxtaposition we are invited to wonder whether madness belongs as much to society itself as to those designated 'mad' by that society. Esther Greenwood's bell jar is a stifling and isolating prison which prevents her from taking part in the normality of the world around her, but – as she realises on leaving the psychiatric hospital – her college-friends going about their day-to-day lives, 'playing bridge and gossiping and studying' are also 'under bell jars of a sort'.
Another important aspect of the novel is its use of figurative language, reminding us that Sylvia Plath was not only a novelist but a poet renowned for her original and striking imagery. Some of the most notable examples in The Bell Jar include Esther Greenwood steering New York like her own private car; the description of Doreen smelling strong as a whole perfume store; the dark that felt thick as velvet as Esther Greenwood prepares to take her overdose; and the newborn baby the colour of a blue plum ... not to mention the notorious turkey neck and turkey gizzards analogy (the significance of which interested readers may find out for themselves!).
In brief, then, The Bell Jar gives a unique, highly individualistic and enormously readable slant on one individual's experience of emotional breakdown, and on the nature of the society in which that breakdown occurs. It is a novel which may be enjoyed with or without the wealth of information that exists about Plath's own experiences. But the book undoubtedly takes on an added significance and poignancy when one is aware of its author's ultimate fate.
It has magnificent sections whose candour and revealed suffering will haunt anyone's memory. (M.L. Rosenthal in the Spectator)
It is a fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems ... (Robert Scholes, New York Times Book Review)
By turns funny, harrowing, crude, ardent and artless. Its most notable quality is an astonishing immediacy, like a series of snapshots taken at high noon. (Time)
From the Internet
The novel deals with really deep themes in a really accessible way. It's a sort of coming of age novel, with a dark side to it. (K. Whitmore, Amazon)
Never have I read a book by someone whose mind seems so alive, yet so troubled. (A Customer, Amazon)
What makes the book special is its honesty, its nakedness. (Little Miss Average, Amazon).