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The Bell Jar is such a
classic of modern literature of mental illness that it verges on the absurd to
review it, but the release of an unabridged audiobook performance of Sylvia Plath's
autobiographical novel merits mention. Furthermore, in a recent course I was
teaching last year, I mentioned Plath in passing and I was slightly taken aback
to find that a good number of psychology majors had no knowledge of her. Maybe
the forthcoming film, Sylvia, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, will raise
awareness about Plath. For others, the very title The Bell Jar may be
such a symbol of young female angst that it just seems a cliché, and they might
not even have read the book out of a sense that one can know what it is all
about without opening it. Those who are familiar with Plath's poetry,
especially in Ariel, may think of her work as so scathingly angry and
unrelentingly scornful that the prospect of reading a whole book by her is
daunting. However, the surprise in reading The Bell Jar now is how
fresh and light it is in tone, even as it goes into details of suicide and
insane asylums. It still really needs to be required reading for anyone
interested in mental illness.
The story of The Bell Jar
directly mirrors the events in Plath's own life. An academically successful
only child whose father died when she was a child, Esther Greenwood is an
honors student at a New England college. At the start of the novel, she is
spending a month in New York City working at a national magazine, thrown
together with a number of other young women all living in the same hotel. She
likes to think of herself as unorthodox but she soon realizes that in fact she
is not as wild as some of the others. She is nineteen years old, a virgin, and
engaged to solid and dependable medical student Buddy Willard. But she has no
intention to actually marry Buddy, and indeed, she has a looming sense of
crisis about what she will do with her life. When she is attacked and nearly
raped at an upscale party, she returns to her suffocating family home, and
immediately finds that she did not get into a summer writing program she was
banking on. She has a breakdown and ceases doing anything, including
sleeping. Eventually, she starts seeing a psychiatrist, who says little to her
but prescribes electroshock treatment. Her mood does not improve, however, and
she nearly succeeds in committing suicide. As a result, she is transferred to
a number of residential facilities, where she again undergoes electroshock
treatment, but this time her condition starts to improve.
The novel is set in the early
1950s, and was written before the feminist movement of the 1960s. Yet the
story clearly links Esther's unhappiness to the stifling culture in which
women's freedom is limited. Esther does not feel that she can fit in with the
expectations others have of her, and her frustration and alienation are
palpable. Yet she has power; she is, for instance, able to fight off the man
who tries to rape her, and she is dismissive of her suitor Buddy. She knows
she is talented and is able to resist the pressures to conform to other
people's expectations. In short, Esther is a complex character who resists
simple labels such as mental patient, victim, or feminist. The Bell Jar
can be read just as easily as social commentary as memoir of mental illness,
but what makes it as vital now as it was when it was written is the energy of
the writing. With every sentence, Plath's intelligence and humor shine
through. Even when she is describing her most desperate and self-destructive
moments, her wry and sardonic tone makes her an appealing narrator.
The performance of the book by
Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has appeared in the movies Secretary, Adaptation,
and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, does much to make the story feel
contemporary. Gyllenhaal has an appealing voice, young enough to be convincing
as a 19-year-old, and yet subtle enough to convey the complexities of the
prose. Her tone has a slightly husky quality, which gives the reading a
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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