The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is not for the faint of heart.
This post is going to contain spoilers, and I also feel I should warn you (in case you don’t know what the book is about) that there will be discussion of depression and suicide. Here goes.
Growing up, I was constantly told (please don’t ask why) that the way you boil a frog is by putting it in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turning up the heat. By the time it realizes how much trouble it’s in, it’s too late to do anything about it. I thought about that a lot as I finished The Bell Jar.
It starts as the kind of novel I hate: a meandering journey through somebody’s life that doesn’t seem to be going to any place in particular. Even then, though, I couldn’t hate it because Plath’s writing was so beautifully and masterfully done. The book is so well-written that it takes a while to realize the author has you by the throat.
There are signs, even in the book’s bright beginnings, that Esther suffers from depression. But it doesn’t seem like a “problem” at first. It’s just a thing about her. By the time she (and the reader) realize how serious it is, she is already contemplating suicide and is sent to a doctor.
When I read The Virgin Suicides, its perspective was designed to give the reader some distance from the depression itself. Plath gives us no such relief. Her first person voice puts you directly into Esther’s head. The imagery and descriptions give a clear picture of how her mind works and how it changes over time. By the end, you are horrified both by how easy it seems to slip into madness and how little anyone actually understands or helps her.
Plath grabs you by the throat. Her words wrap themselves around your head. I can’t say I loved this book, but I am amazed by what Plath accomplished here and I know it will stay with me. I’m still shaking over it. That’s how good she was at her job. Though I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, this book deserves its spot in the Literary Canon and is worth reading…if you can stomach it.