The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
Synopsis (Goodreads): When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.
Mental health issues and the breakdown of the taboos surrounding them is a pretty recent phenomenon and a movement that I feel is still building. Many people are still not comfortable with the topic and the discussions surrounding the acknowledgement and treatment of conditions like depression are very polarised and will encompass everything from empathy and support to judgement and total denial.
The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, first published in 1963 barely a month after the author herself committed suicide. It is a powerful and honest narrative of a slow descent into depression told through the eyes of protagonist Esther Greenwood with a message that continues to resonate to this day.
I first listened to this in audiobook form (narrated by the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal) and I enjoyed it, but I loved it so much more when I actually re-read the book itself.
Reading the book, you can see why it’s often touted as a feminist manifesto but I didn’t really care about that because the message was all wrapped up in such lush prose.
Esther, like the author, was very much a woman ahead of her time with fears whose essence really hasn’t changed in the 50-plus years since the book was first published…the fear of not being taken seriously beyond becoming a future homemaker, of unwanted pregnancy and being stuck in a marriage to a man you become increasingly disillusioned with, or of simply being unable to live a meaningful life in your own right. In short, the suffocation that came from living a life of limited choices.
Just to wrap up, guys please don’t let the words feminist manifesto put you off because this is a poignant, powerful story that everyone should read once at least once.