To commemorate fifty years having passed since the death of poet and author Sylvia Plath, Annette Ong reviews her only novel ‘The Bell Jar’. Chronicling the life, career and mental illness of its protagonist Esther Greenwood, the novel provides a fascinating and unflinching insight into the illness to which Plath herself was victim.
Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Shelley; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert; Virginia and Leonard Woolf; Anais Nin and Henry Miller: these are just some of the literary world’s most well-known power couples.
Add to this mix, one Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. To have one literary genius in the home is one thing, but two? One can only imagine the conversations and challenges that took place. The relationship between Plath and Hughes has been under public scrutiny for decades, including a film portraying their marriage starring Gywneth Platrow as Plath – made perhaps to satiate the voyeuristic need to peer into their personal lives more than to familiarise oneself with their literary accomplishments.
Most are familiar with Plath’s suicide after years of battling mental illness, but before her tragic end, she wrote some of the finest work I have ever read. I was first introduced to her poetry while studying and I still remember the intensity of her words. A poem like Ariel leaves an indelible mark on the memory. Pursuit is another gem; visceral imagery that lingers long after the last stanza is read.
In her writing career she produced one solo novel The Bell Jar. Among its pages is a story about a young woman, Esther Greenwood, balanced precariously on the cusp of life; a time when potential looms large and opportunities are endless. However, Esther is secretly struggling with a darkness she cannot shake. The shadow of mental illness and depression hound her constantly, never allowing her peace. A semi-autobiographical tale, Plath has written of moments in her life by fictionalising them for her readers. Names of people and places have been changed.
After reading her poetry, the novel is a complete surprise. The wit and dry humour leaves you unguarded; you find yourself chuckling and wondering if that’s an appropriate reaction when the book is essentially about the loneliness and frustration of the mentally ill. There can’t possibly be anything funny about a psychiatric ward? Plath would have you think otherwise. She writes with the brutal honesty of one who has experienced these things first hand, which is always a great advantage for a writer.
The book’s heroine, Esther, is a feminist in the making; super intelligent, headstrong and ambitious. While still a college student, she wins a writing competition with eleven other girls and is sent to New York City to work, pushed closer to reaching her ultimate dream of writing poems, travelling the world, and dating but never marrying. While experiencing the highs and lows of city life, Esther begins to slowly unravel; her mental health frays at the seams until all the loose threads become a tangled mess and she finds herself in a psychiatric clinic, a prime candidate for Electric Shock Therapy. Needless to say, the experience is harrowing and sounds like something from a science-fiction novel.
The Bell Jar is a story chronicling mental illness; it highlights the desperation of not only the sufferer but also their family and friends who struggle to cope on a regular basis. It is eloquently written, successfully articulating what is still a taboo subject in the contemporary world. The novel tells of the deprivation of light and liberty for Esther; the dark cloud that stalks her and the loss of the freedom to be the master of her own mind. All is not so bleak, however, as Plath has written a hopeful open ending for Esther, which sadly did not translate to her own life.