Review: The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood’s nervous breakdown and repeated suicide attempts, a story rather similar to Plath’s own. Greenwood’s depression is apparent early during her time interning at a magazine. Throughout the novel, her condition only worsens, leading to hospitalizations and numerous psychiatric ward commitments.
During her internship, Esther is frequently discontent. She has trouble sticking to deadlines, attending social gatherings, and making friends. Describing her feelings during these few months she says, “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 3). With hopes of taking a writing course for the summer, Esther leaves her internship optimistically. However, when she gets home, she finds out she was not accepted into the class. Esther Greenwood falls into a deeper depression at the thought of staying home in the suburbs for a summer. When calling her college admissions office to inform them that she will no longer be enrolling in any summer school courses, her body feels separate from her ”zombie voice” speaking, indicating further depersonalization (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 119). Facing her options for a summer at home, Esther realizes that she is not interested in any typical female occupations. She does not want to learn shorthand, or use it in any type of job that requires it. She has difficulty writing at all, losing an interest in her English major, and realizing that she needs life experience to be able to write. Greenwood stops sleeping, and her hygiene suffers as she repeatedly wears the same clothing and ceases bathing. She cannot face any of the options she sees ahead of her.
Esther Greenwood becomes obsessed with ways of killing herself. Even before this severe depression, she had expressed an interest in the process of one’s life ending. When criminals were being electrocuted, she “couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive, along your nerves” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 1). Later, she reads a newspaper article about a man being helped off a ledge by police. She searches the article for any clue of why the man wanted to jump, or what convinced him to go back inside. She considers jumping, but decides against it as she is unsure what distance would be required for her to fall with no chance of living through it. This concern arises again with regard to shooting herself. On a blind date, she asks the guy how he would choose to kill himself, and he says with a gun. Esther is dismissive of this idea, fearing that she might shoot the wrong part of her body and end up paralyzed or saved. Esther expresses admiration for the Japanese practice of disembowelment when something goes wrong. She tries to cut herself in a bathtub, but “when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 147). Though unsure of where exactly the problem lies, and how to rid herself of it, Esther continues her suicide attempts. She plans to hang herself, but cannot find anywhere to fasten the cord. Instead, she tries to pull the cord tight around her neck, yet finds that her hands always slacken at the crucial moment. When Esther swims far out into the ocean in hopes of drowning, the water repeatedly pops her back up. Esther Greenwood is disillusioned with life, thinking “everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end,” yet has difficulty bringing about her own early demise (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 129).
Esther expresses ambivalence about killing herself for a short while. This is common among those who want to kill themselves, as they usually want to get rid of their problems more than their lives, but do not see another way out. Esther considers religion as a way out of her despair for a brief time. She says, “Lately, I had considered going into the Catholic Church myself. I knew that Catholics thought killing yourself was an awful sin. But perhaps if this was so, they might have a good way to persuade me out of it,” but does not in fact go to the church, or find comfort in anything else (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 164). Shortly thereafter, Esther makes an almost fatal attempt at killing herself by hiding in her basement and taking pills “swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one.” Upon taking the pills, she experiences nothing at first, “but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 169). If she had not been found in time by her mother, that might have been the end of Esther’s trouble, and her life.
After being discovered, Esther wakes up in a hospital room, from which she is soon transferred to a psychiatric ward. Quickly distressed with the public ward in which she finds herself, Esther’s mother finds a famous writer who provides funds for Esther to stay in a private facility. On the way to her new hospital, she thinks of jumping out of the car while it drives across a bridge, but is stopped as her mother and brother sit on each side of her. Once at the new psychiatric center, Esther does begin to improve. Electric shock treatments seem to help her, and she gains more hospital privileges as time progresses.
Even as Esther’s condition improves, she worries about the future. What might her life be like without treatment, outside the hospital, and back in the world from which she had struggled so desperately to escape? She wonders, “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 241). The novel ends positively with Esther’s release from the hospital. After constant thoughts of suicide and repeated attempts, she has been rehabilitated, at least temporarily. While there is hope that this might show positive possibilities for those who are suicidal, close reflection on Plath’s own life shows otherwise. Esther Greenwood is a fictionalized version of Plath, who in time did commit suicide. Though it is not within the scope of the novel, Esther, who believes she “would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air” regardless of where she is, likely killed herself sooner or later as well (Plath, 1971/2005, p. 185).
Quotable Quotes from The Bell Jar
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
“Life has been some combination of fairy-tale coincidence and joie de vivre and shocks of beauty together with some hurtful self-questioning.”
“‘Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’
‘No, what?’ I would say.
‘A piece of dust.’
Then, just as he was smiling and starting to look proud, I would say, ‘So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.’
And of course Buddy wouldn’t have any answer to that, because what I said was true. People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn’t see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick or couldn’t sleep.”