Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Bell Jar

By Slyvia Plath
Perennial Classics, 1999. 264 pages. Fiction

The time is the 1940s, and Esther Greenwood is at the peak of her college life. She has friends of all sorts (from kind to sassy), she’s on scholarship, she has a beau in medical school, and she’s won a month in New York City working on a fashion magazine. Though showered with free makeup, heaps of caviar, and fancy parties, New York is where things start to fall apart. Always the girl with a plan before, she starts to lose sight of her goals and motivation. She finds that she won’t do what she’s supposed to, but can’t quite do what she isn’t supposed to either. Suddenly she stops getting out of bed. She can’t sleep, can’t read, and is forced to move home with her mother. After an attempted suicide, her mother places Esther in an asylum. She has experiences with behavioral and shock therapy, both good and bad, and slowly moves up through the ranks of mental illness, gaining more and more of herself back as she goes.

Originally published in 1963, The Bell Jar is a captivating look at mental illness before the DSM. Esther’s plight sucks you in as a reader, and there is a sort of horrible fascination to watching “medieval” psychiatry at work. Even more than that, however, is the painfully personal and accurate picture of clinical depression that Plath paints. The book is largely autobiographical (though the names have all been changed), and it shows in the detailed nuances of Plath’s writing. No one could describe depression so perfectly without having been there. Though this book is often read in high school English classes, its powerful messages apply to a much broader audience. Since one in three college-age females suffers from depression, this is a book of vital importance to the secondary education crowd.  Even beyond that, I would wager that everyone in the United States knows someone struggling with depression, whether they know it or not. This book is an important piece of validation for those suffering and of understanding for those who want to help, and as such I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to struggle with some heavy themes.

Oh, and the writing is gorgeous. Can’t forget that.


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