Sylvia Plath is known for many things: poetry, depression, suicide, and one novel—The Bell Jar. Plath began writing The Bell Jar after her first collection of poems was published in 1961, but she didn’t finish it until 1963 after she separated from her husband, Ted Hughes. Plath was living in London at the time and the novel was published under her pseudonym Victoria Lucas. About a month later, Plath committed suicide.
Prior to her suicide Plath suffered from a history of depression, including several previous unsuccessful attempts to take her own life. In light of this, it is difficult to read The Bell Jar separate from its author. But I think this isn’t a bad thing in this case. One piece of advice that aspiring writers always hear it to “write from personal experience,” because then they can write about something they are familiar. Writing from personal experience allows writers to write more convincingly because he or she know exactly what a certain experience feels like and he or she can portray that to the reader. This is how it is with Sylvia Plath and depression in The Bell Jar.
Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, has the life that every young woman at her time would have envied. She’s living in New York City interning at a fashionable women’s magazine. She has friends and a somewhat serious boyfriend named Buddy. Esther describes her situation as a fig tree, where each fig is something different opportunity for her—a traditional family, a brilliant professor, a successful editor—she could be anything she wanted. But Esther extends the metaphor to say, “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.”
Even though she is in a position to achieve anything she wants, Esther becomes disinterested in everything around her. She stops socializing with her friends and loses interest in her work, beginning to show signs of depression. When she returns to her home in Boston, Esther finds out that she was not accepted into a writing course she was eager to take, which only adds to her depression. Now living with her mother, Esther becomes more and more depressed and fails to find anything that interests her. Eventually Esther decides to take her own life, but she even fails to work up enough resolve to accomplish this. She can’t bring herself to cut her wrists and she fails to drown at sea. Eventually, she overdoses on sleeping pills and is discovered unconscious.
After spending time in a hospital, working with a psychiatrist, and undergoing shock therapy, Esther seems to be on the mend when the book ends, which contrasts sharply with the end Sylvia Plath’s own life because Plath ultimately succeeded in committing suicide (though there is debate as to whether or not she meant to kill herself or was intending to be found before she expired, much like Esther).
At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking that The Bell Jar is as depressing as its author or main character, but depressing is not synonymous with boring. The book is incredibly interesting because of the way the Plath handles Esther’s depression. Esther’s disinterest in the world around her is apparent to the reader, but the reader is drawn into Esther’s side of things. The reader sympathizes with Esther by also failing to find anything that could or should excite Esther. The reader agrees with Esther’s thoughts. Then Esther tries to commit suicide. It’s like Plath has drawn you into Esther’s cavern of depression and you don’t even know it until it’s too late. Everything is normal, if disinteresting, and then suddenly you’re sitting on your couch with your copy of The Bell Jar wondering how you got drawn into this crazy chick’s vicious cycle of depression.
That is the genius of Sylvia Plath’s novel. Esther isn’t crazy. She isn’t different from other people. She didn’t suffer trauma as a child. She’s normal; she’s you. And then she tries to commit suicide. The Bell Jar achieves what only great books can achieve—the reader not only sees, but also feels, Esther’s depression. Plath conveys to the reader what depression is like for some people. It’s a slippery slope of normality until you’re baking your head in the oven with your children in the next room, like Sylvia Plath.
The Bell Jar is different; there aren’t many books like it. It doesn’t just show you a character who is depressed so you can observe as the far off reader. It draws you into the story and shows you what depression feels like. That ability to draw the reader in that intimately is the triumph of a great novel.