The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

This book is one of my favourites. I’ve read it repeatedly since first being introduced to it at school. It is beautifully written and Plath’s prose is as poetic as her poems. She has a knack for capturing the essence of anything in just a few lyrical words; from a thought or feeling to a whole situation or personality. It is one of the few books I have read that  portrays someone with serious mental health issues and manages to emphasise the severity of their experience alongside their humanity, or ‘normality’ if you will. Esther Greenwood may be increasingly detached, depressed, delusional and struggling to engage with the world around her, but she is still just a girl who loves a bath.

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure but I don’t know many of them.

I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath

And just try to tell me you have never stood somewhere beautiful, looked around and felt this..

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

Plath shows you someone who is incredibly vulnerable and almost naive about life, but she is also intelligent and has had to make her own deductions about what is going on and what is expected of her. She also shows you other people’s reactions to mental health, and while some of the treatments have moved on since this was written in 1963 not all attitudes have.

It feels odd to rave about a book full of so much unhappiness and where the narrator even contemplates suicide, but these things are so often politely ignored and Plath is unapologetic about the extreme actions and emotions involved. Seeing these things in print, written by someone who was dealing with her own mental health issues, is important and even empowering. It is so important to feel that these things can be discussed openly, freely and without judgement. And its not just mental health issues, she very neatly underlines the absurdity of male views about women – for example: when Esther sees a woman give birth in terrible pain and is told that the woman has been given a drug that will help her forget the pain afterwards, rather than lessen it in the moment and Esther remarks…

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent […] she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

To some people this will seem to be a grim and gloomy read, but I actually see it as full of hope, that Esther is not defined or completely consumed by her illness and that it is possible to find help, support and understanding. I adore this book, because parts of it ring true on a personal level to some extent and because Plath’s writing is an absolute joy. Any book that can observe the very depths of despair so acutely and still make you laugh is a winner by my reckoning.

From: this copy is from Toppings & Company bookshop in Bath

Read: repeatedly, this time mostly in the bath or tucked up against radiators

Felt: oddly reassured. I forget just how easy this is to read and find it comforting and compelling each time through.

Would recommend: Absolutely, if only for Plath’s writing. It is a difficult read in places and if you struggle with mental health issues then I still recommended it but do have a look at the links below for support – part of the appeal of this book is that it isn’t ‘only you’ and these organisations are here to help.

To finish with a final quote…

Don’t let the wicked city get you down.


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