Book Review: Descending into the Lonely Spiral of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

book review the bell jarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity. Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational—as accessible an experience as going to the movies.

A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic. (Goodreads)

No other author speaks to me quite as deeply as Sylvia Plath does. In a sea overpopulated by brilliant writers with their brilliant literary masterpieces, there is only one author whose voice I find as strangely comforting and familiar as it is tragic and heartbreaking.

Published in 1963, The Bell Jar is the only novel to ever be published by the American author and poet, Sylvia Plath. In this classic novel, Sylvia Plath unfolds the story of Esther Greenwood and her downfall into depression and mental illness. Sylvia Plath’s elaborate and honest account of Esther Greenwood’s condition provides a deeply compelling view into the troubled mind of the tragic heroine.

But even though the Bell Jar is often regarded as a semi-autobiography of its author, I always looked upon it as more of a journal than anything else—one that allowed me to witness in full scale the struggles that Sylvia Plath went through in her own life. I always imagined that the words she inked to bring the novel to life were the same words that both baffled and broke her spirit, and that the intensity which gave form to her book is the same intensity which robbed her of her expression and eventually, her life.

By the same token, I was never able to take the novel in isolation. Throughout the book, my mind has developed, almost on its own, a sort of literary mechanism or strategy that automatically associated Esther Greenwood’s life with that of Sylvia Plath, to a certain extent that it was almost impossible for me to read the book without carefully considering and taking into account the crucial events in Sylvia Plath’s life that led to her psychological breakdown and ultimately to her suicide.

The Bell Jar came to me almost as a pure autobiography disguised in the trappings of a novel. To say the least, I wouldn’t have understood Esther Greenwood’s story and her descent to madness had it not for the strikingly familiar and painful recognition of Sylvia Plath’s own emotional and mental collapse within the suffocating air of the darkness of the bell jar.

On the one hand, others might argue against this kind of reading and might ascribe this method as a failure on the reader’s part to distinguish the line that divides author from character and fact from fiction. However, I personally believe that the strength and intensity that the novel has successfully drawn from among its readers, the extremely raw powerful portrayal of a mind in the brink of madness, the expression of grace in the midst of an intense mental violence, stems from the genuine immersion and suffering of the author herself in real life.

For me, what Sylvia Plath has perfectly accomplished as an author and a writer was the delicate forceful fusion of both her life and her art: the masterly way she has weaved her own madness and projected it with an external existence. For me, what gave Bell Jar the emotional magnitude it now possessed was its sublime violence expressed through the most intimate confession of someone who is trapped in the amber of the invisible disease of the mind.

The Bell Jar has effectively captured the voice of her author, in such a powerful way that it echoes the voices of those who suffer the same ordeal. Life may have taken away Sylvia Plath along with her words and her beautiful mind, but the Bell Jar stands to this day as a memorial to immortalize the voice of a writer who was brave enough to acknowledge her predicament, and whose life she was prepared to surrender as material in the name of madness and art.


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