Exeposé Books Issue 626, Page 22 (Freshers’ Issue), Exeposé Books online (15 September 2014)
Scanning the second-hand book stand at my local supermarket, I was surprised to see a title I’d been meaning to lay my hands on for a while.
After reading the blurb and finding out Sylvia Plath’s novel followed the story of a 19-year-old journalist wannabe just like myself, I decided The Bell Jar would probably be worth the 50p donation – and I wasn’t wrong.
Esther Greenwood is a talented young college student from Massachusetts, who’s landed a summer job working for a magazine in New York. However, returning home with various summer plans which don’t go as hoped, she soon begins to struggle to keep her grasp on life. As her world appears to cave in around her ears, we realise Esther is sinking into a breakdown.
The Bell Jar turned out to be completely unlike anything I’d previously read. Mental illness has been a much-discussed topic this summer, but Plath’s narrator conveys it in a way I’ve never seen done before – and the result is both vivid and chilling. Esther’s conversational tone remains unbroken as she begins to lose control, so we struggle to realise what is actually happening. Her seemingly calm, rational manner makes it easy to trust her narration, so it comes as even more of a shock when we are confronted with the reality of her condition.
In a matter-of-fact tone, she treats suicide attempts as a kind of conundrum, as if solving a Sudoku puzzle: “Then I hunted around for a place to attach the rope. The trouble was, our house had the wrong kind of ceilings.” We are repeatedly comforted with flashes of normality: “We browned hotdogs on the public grills at the beach,” and promptly punished for this complacency: “Then, when nobody was looking, I buried it in the sand.” The Bell Jar seems to play with our perceptions of mental health. We know Esther is ill, and yet her frank, honest tone means we trust her in spite of ourselves. She certainly seems more trustworthy than some of those she encounters.
We’re undoubtedly on Esther’s side throughout, but it’s an uncomfortable alliance – and remains so until the novel’s close. Willing Esther to escape this illness completely, I was initially frustrated by her story’s open ending. However, Plath leaves us with hope for Esther, without undermining her condition, and in this way succeeds in balancing human sensitivity with literary brilliance.