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'The Bell Jar' Review

In the backdrop the Cold War and second wave feminism, but at the heart, a searingly personal microcosmic word – the opening line of ‘The Bell Jar’ seems to get to the heart of this text: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenburgs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’  There is certainly something that might be considered queer about the sudden departure of Esther Greenwood from reality to insanity.  The idea of a sultry summer suggests extremes and Esther’s world certainly becomes a dark extreme.  The further connotation of electrocution gives a hint at the psychiatric world and all its features that lies ahead.  Finally, the feeling of being lost – ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ - in a city like New York, sets up the disillusion and disorientation that is waiting for Esther and the reader. 

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel captures a pattern that many readers may identify with.  On the brink of success, at a time when everything “should” be going well, for no reason, out of nowhere, the dark fog of mental health comes over Esther - the fog in this case being inside the Bell Jar.  Suddenly, Esther is separated from everyone, unable to reach them.  She can see out and people can see her, but there is a glass wall dividing the ‘real’ world of sanity and the ‘crazy’ world of insanity.  Esther loses interest, self-harms and eventually tries taking her life. 

The graphic description of Esther’s suicide attempts are made even more chilling through the cold detached narrative.  Again, many readers will identify with such a matter of fact attitude towards their own care, or lack of, towards living and dying.

Many people criticise this text for romanticising suicide.  But there was nothing romantic about the real taking of Plath’s own life just weeks after this text was published.  Unashamedly real this story will shock the reader with its truth. 

Claire Ten, North London


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