Following the recent publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956, Katie Roberts revisits the poet’s only novel, a tormented roman-à-clef that is both gorgeous and dangerous. The Bell Jar combines bewitching poetry with a candid account of mental illness, dragging the reader into the stifling confines of the figurative jar itself.
Having fought with depression and anxiety myself, I might have thought twice before I bought The Bell Jar, a fictionalisation of events leading up to Plath’s suicide. I was willing to take the risk, though.
The book tugs you into the life of Esther Greenwood, an American college student who wins a work placement at a New York fashion magazine. The fragility of Esther’s mental state is apparent in the first paragraph: ‘I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves’. This portentous image is at once horrid and intriguing.
Following a succession of disappointing men, sleepless nights and barbaric medical practices, Esther’s condition worsens. The result is extreme isolation, a feeling she compares to being trapped inside a glass dust cover for displaying ornaments called a bell jar. An image came to mind of the enchanted rose from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Only now it occurred to me that this rose, an icon of my childhood, wilted and died within its jar.
With that, my perception became filtered through the dreary outlook of Esther Greenwood, distorted by the smudged glass of the bell jar. For her, even making a cup of tea feels futile. Although Plath perfectly articulates the darkest hollows of depression, for me she lingers there a beat too long.
The novel’s morbid imagery of pickled cadavers and bottled foetuses is disturbing, while the suicide attempts border on suggestions – a high risk for a reader with mental health problems. Being fortunate enough to have a good support network and access to treatment more humane than the electroconvulsive therapy administered to Esther and Plath, I survived my own demons. But The Bell Jar should carry a cautionary message for readers more vulnerable than myself.
This raises some important questions. Are there other books out there that pose similar risks to readers? Is it wrong to slap health warnings on such texts? Perhaps. But if it can save a life it should be considered. More recent works of fiction which explore mental health, such as Thirteen Reasons Why and Perks of Being a Wallflower, were described in a 2015 Guardian article as ‘life-saving’ by some readers. What is considered a trigger for one person may be a source of comfort to another.
The Bell Jar is, however, studded with evocative descriptions, which provide relief. One sparkling moment is when Esther throws her clothes into ‘the dark heart of New York’ from the rooftop of her hotel. It’s a liberating scene. There is also slapstick comedy, like when the group of girls on placement fall ill with food poisoning and cover the hotel in vomit.
After wading through the book’s dark waters, on which floats only the occasional lily of hope, we find that Esther’s outcome is more positive than Plath’s, who committed suicide in 1963, the year the book was published. Following treatment, Esther recovers. The reader can finally exhale a sigh of relief.
The Bell Jar is socially and culturally prescient given that today one in six adults in England suffer from a common mental health problem. While it may not have a therapeutic effect on everyone who has experienced depression, I can’t help but feel grateful for the book. Society has come a long way, and books like The Bell Jar lift the dust cover of the stigma surrounding mental distress.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.