Curled Up With Classics: The Bell Jar

Curled Up With Classics are posts I write to share some of my all-time favourite novels. You can find the rest of them here.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream. This novel didn't make me cry; it made me tremble. It left me suffocated and numb, my throat dry and my fingers fumbling to turn each page. The glimpse we get into Esther's world, the world of a teenager falling into the grips of insanity, is shocking. Yet, it's not just Esther's world we witness; we see another life too, lingering on every page. Sylvia Plath gave us a darkly-humoured gem within The Bell Jar and all I have in return is pure adoration for every aspect of this modern classic.

Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality.

Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.

Before I go into any further detail about my adoration for both this novel and Sylvia Plath, I thought it was worth mentioning that The Bell Jar features one of my favourite ever passages from literature. The figurative language (no pun intended there, I swear) is vivid and layered and just so relatable:

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.”

Why I adore The Bell Jar:
    • Esther's voice is so endearing.
      • She's witty, intelligent, morbid, perceptive and all you want from a protagonist.
    • Mental illness is never an easy topic to deal with, yet The Bell Jar doesn't shy away from the reality. (That said, it's somewhat difficult to read if you know about the life of Sylvia Plath).
    • The novel deals with gender roles and the life choices for women at the time.
    • There has never been a female teenager in fiction that I've been so fascinated by; even today, Esther is still relevant.
    • The concept of the bell jar closing down on Esther is vivid and even understandable
    • Each time I read The Bell Jar, I can't help but see a bit of Holden Caulfield in Esther (or maybe a bit of Esther in Holden):  
      • "I felt wise and cynical as hell."
      • "If you expect nothing from anybody, you're never disappointed."
    • The novel is written through a series of flashbacks.
    • The novel addresses the theme of identity through Esther.
    • It's full of lines that do nothing but make you think endlessly:
      • “The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.” 
      • “I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow.” 
    • I know I've said this many times, but Esther is just such a brilliant character, full of complexity. 
    • The Bell Jar is sad, yes. Disturbing at points, yes. But it's also incredibly witty, if the humour is a bit on the morbid side. There are positive moments and there are negative moments – it has an abundance of different themes, each one as interesting as the next.

      Five amazing quotations from the novel:
      1. “The silence depresses me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence.”
      2. “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, "This is what it is to be happy".” 
      3. “I am sure there are things that can't be cured by a good bath but I can't think of one.” 
      4. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” 
      5. “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.” 

      13 comments:

      1. I love Sylvia Plath. We did a few poems of hers in class last year and I liked "The Tulips" So much that I went to my library and rented every single poetry book that had poems by her in it. I also rented The Bell Jar and completely fell in love with it. Head over heels in love with it. It's definitely one of my favorite books of all time. Have you read the Yellow Wallpaper by Gilman? It's quite reminiscent of Plath in some ways.

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        1. I'm glad you love The Bell Jar too. I've read a few of her poems, but I definitely want to read more. And nope, I haven't read Yellow Wallpaper. I vaguely remember picking it up in a bookshop before though – I'll have to check it out!

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      2. You put your fingers on all the main points beautifully. This is, indeed, a disturbing, heartbreaking, emotive and relevant read. There's a YA book where the main character (a 15 year old girl) reads The Bell Jar and is fascinated by it, a book full of references to TBJ too (though a much lighter read in terms of general tone) - I would recommend it as well:
        And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky

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        1. Thank you! Glad you share my love for this novel. And also, thank you for the link, I'll have to look around for that book!

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      3. I bought The Bell Jar a few months ago but I'm yet to read it because, to be honest, I'm scared... I'll read it one day but I'm intimidated by how amazing its meant to be. :3 xx

        Through A Cat's Eyes

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        1. Hehe I think you'll really like it. :) It is quite intimidating though, I'll admit. ^.^

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      4. I keep saying this every time you have mentioned The Bell Jar but I NEED TO READ THIS BOOK! I've been looking all over the place lately trying to find it and I'm so glad that you decided to post this as it has made me more determined to get a copy.
        I love the idea of flashbacks as well. It is completely different but I'm a fanfiction author and when I write my stories most chapters consist of flashbacks. xx

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        1. Flashbacks are always a really interesting technique. In The Bell Jar, they'e used to subtly reveal elements of the protagonist's past. :) I hope you find this one somewhere.

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      5. I've never heard of this book but it sounds so intriguing! I definitely want to read more classics this year, I think I've only read a total of 5 *cowers away in shame* Great post!

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        1. Thank you! This is a good one to start with too. :)

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      6. I have a small obsession with Sylvia Plath and I love The Bell Jar so so much. That quote is one of my favourites too because I can completely identify with Esther and she puts that feeling into words so eloquently. Ruby, you've made me pull my copy off my shelf to reread it again!

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        1. Haha I would say I'm sorry but I'm really not! ;D

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      7. Ooooh I love The Bell Jar! It is such a stunning book. My word. I love that quote, "the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am."

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