Publish Date: 1963
Author: Sylvia Plath
Everyone has heard of Sylvia Plath's one and only novel, and it seemed like everyone in high school had read it except me. Everybody I knew was a feminist, idealizing suicide and not belonging, and I just put it on my "To Be Read" list. So if you're like me and the only thing people ever spoke about this book was the suicide aspect (because that's all they were reading it for, honestly), you might not know what else the book is about. It’s Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963. It was not published in the US until 1971, eight years after her death. In a nutshell, it’s about madness, identity, role models, gender norms, society, and happiness.
Esther Greenwood, clever academically and aspiring writer, has won a trip to New York with some college classmates to intern at a fashion magazine. It is here, on her own in the adult world, that she learns about herself, sex, men and women, and her friends. Once she leaves New York to the next leg of her journey though life, she hits a standstill. By any standards, Esther is different - her actions for her age don't always make sense, and it makes life difficult for her. These difficulties put her on a deliberate path that most people shy away from.
The beginning of the novel is so different from the rest. In New York, Esther is making decisions and learning, and I felt that she was growing up though she was a bit strange and sometimes surprisingly mean. It feels like a coming of age story with a sharper edge an usual. She’s telling the reader her view of the world, and if you're paying attention, she's very cynical about it, but she’s conflicted about how she fits into it. It's when she leaves New York that we get the real turning point. An event sets her off into a spiraling depression, but from her cynicism in her New York experience, you can see that it isn't out of the blue. It’s like she’s walking down a dimly-lit staircase one step at a time – the reader is waiting for her to start going back up towards the light, but she keeps going down.
If thinking about depression, trying to understand depression in others, or if you think people should just buckle up, this book isn't for you. Same goes for suicide. It's not a bad thing, it's just hard to listen to people complain when they should have gotten the hint before reading. (If you hate vampire romance novels, don't read Twilight and complain about it.)
That said, you can easily write intriguing essays using this novel in university or high school. I’ve read that this book is studied in high school, so unless you come from a school with blinders on, I’d say it would be alright. Possible essay topics include:
- Oppressive gender roles;
- Models of women that are available for Esther to model herself as;
- Psychiatry of the 1950s (madness vs depression…can someone write a comparison to the works of Emilie Autumn and The Bell Jar? Please?);
- The role of the media;
- The stigma of mental illness; and
- The imagery and metaphor of the bell jar.
Esther is difficult for some readers because she lies to herself and others, so who she is doesn’t resonate for a long time (and she is trying to figure it out as well). However, that was the fun of Esther. When she did irrational things I was confused. Is she just so “feminist” I don't get it? Is she just "crazy" and she cannot be comprehended? I kept trying to make sense of her but I couldn't, even at the end, and I like that about her.
There is one character that surprised me from one chapter to the next. I am on the fence about the believability of this character, but hopefully it will continue to make readers think. Mental health issues are heavily stigmatized and yet they can also be romanticized. It’s such a terrible thought that someone could be faking the need for help, but the way that she acts and describes her situation left me believing that she was romanticizing her “craziness” rather than genuinely experiencing distress.
The book generally has a disparaging cast of men, and the women are diverse. Her mother, her sexually liberated friend, her “goody-goody” friend, the baby-factory neighbour, her doctors, her benefactor, her boss…there are many characters. As Esther is trying to write her own identity, she looks towards a whole host of people to compare herself to.
I definitely recommend this for a library collection (it's currently in our hospital’s small fiction collection). It would be a hard sell for a teen book club, though if everyone wanted to read it because they had heard that they should, go for it (unless you fear overprotective parents). Overall, I'm glad I read this at this point in my life and not when I was 16. (Sorry, 16-year-old me.) Not that I wouldn't have understood it, but everyone was reading it for the insanity, the suicide, the implications of sex, and a loose idea of feminism, and I think I would have been swept away by the hype.
I don’t think this line would have struck me so deeply:
“I wonder who will marry you now, Esther.”