Discovering The Bell Jar

the_bell_jar_1st_edition1st Edition cover of The Bell Jar published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas
Words by Elizabeth Pollard

Despite being one of the worlds most famous coming of age novels, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, slipped under my radar until very recently. This may however be a good thing, as had I read it when I was 17, my volatile, melodramatic self may have tried to identify with the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a little too much. It’s Plath’s seductive way of writing that makes you empathise with Greenwood’s state of mind. The journey from writing scholar to asylum patient is slow but entirely comprehensible; her train of thought links you seamlessly through her transition.

Written with almost too clear a voice for her protagonist, you immediately draw comparisons between Greenwood and Plath’s own life. On discovering that Plath committed suicide just a month after the book was published in the UK, it’s no wonder the book is often considered a roman à clef (a novel about real life but masked with fiction). Although you would assume the heartbreak of the plot would come from the demise of Greenwood’s mental health, for me, it was more heartbreaking that I felt compassion towards her intolerance of the people she encounters; the falsities of social climbers, the selfishness of her mother and the emotional and physical abuse from men. It made me question whether everyone has the potential to have a mental illness and is the way society responds to the illness a contributing factor to their demise.

The Bell Jar should no longer be considered an important coming-of-age text but rather a first hand account of how the nurture of our society allows cases like Esther Greenwood’s and Sylvia Plath’s to exist. Medically and spiritually we still have so little understanding of mental illness that we are just adding the sufferer’s condition. Although things have changed enormously since the sixties, we still have a long journey ahead in order to educate ourselves about our own mind’s.

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