As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” - The Bell Jar
I’ve struggled against reading the Bell Jar for the longest time probably because I found it’s cult following and fame a little bit daunting and unapproachable. For some reason, the time was right a few weeks ago to crack it open and start reading and, boy, do I not regret that decision. It was only after I had finished the book that I came to know that people liken this book to Catcher in the Rye. I would like to start this review by saying that they are nothing alike. If I had known of the comparison before reading the Bell Jar I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. For me, Catcher in the Rye was about a boy who didn’t want to grow up. The Bell Jar on the other hand is about a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who struggles with the mounting pressure of choosing what society expects of her or choosing what she wants to do.
“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.” - The Bell Jar
Esther Greenwood is a college girl in the 50’s. All her life she has been an A student, has won awards and scholarships, including one to college and a competition to be a guest editor for the summer at a magazine in New York, which is where the story first picks up.
“I was supposed to be having the time of my life.” - The Bell Jar
Esther starts questioning her life so far and where she will go from here, it’s the summer before her senior year at college and the glittering New York life doesn’t seem to be all that she hoped it would be. Between describing the goings on of the pack of girls employed at the magazine for the summer she talks about past events, especially how her relationship with Buddy Willard came to be. Buddy is supposed to be the perfect man: handsome, smart, a future doctor. At first, before she really knew him, Esther thought he was that ideal man. But she comes to resent Buddy’s double standards, the fact that he is sexually active while still expecting Esther to remain a virgin until they marry. On top of that he constantly belittles Esther’s ambition to become a poet, likening poetry to dust that will blow away and tells her that once they are married she won’t have any time for poetry. Buddy Willard, in short, is a chauvinistic asshole. His views on women mirror the views of society at the time and leads to Esther feeling like her virginity is a ball and chain around her neck, that she must rid herself of it to sever the possible of remaining a virgin until marriage.
“The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” - The Bell Jar
Esther’s mental state eventually deteriorates to the point where she becomes obsessed with committing suicide and eventually has to seek treatment. It's finally when she is being treated by a female doctor who doesn't judge her but encourages her to be honest about her feelings that she slowly begins to heal.
I did wonder about the mirroring in Buddy and Esther's respective illnesses. Buddy's TB is physical and he gains weight in treatment away from the world, Esther's mental illness is obviously mental and she gains weight from the insulin. They both walk out after their respective treatment but I felt Buddy's comment, "Who will marry you now?" pointed to the fact that Esther's illness carried with it much more stigma and in fact her doctor warns her that people may treat her differently.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the Bell Jar. It was well written and flowed from page one to finish. I could also identify with Esther as an ambitious student measuring her selfworth from grades and accolades. Knowing Plath’s own history also made me read the book with her in mind making me think that the book was more autobiographical than fiction.