The Bell Jar

I read The Bell Jar last week, and discussed it with my class yesterday. We explored the cultural context of the text and Plath’s biographical context, both of which deeply affect the story as a whole. As we examined specific passages, I realized that I had missed so much when I read it. The text is so rich; it is impossible to fully grasp it in the first reading. Sylvia Plath is brilliant. Let’s just start with that. Her writing is fantastic.

When I read the first line, I knew that it was going to be good:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

All of the questions that erupt in response to that sentence suck the reader into the text. When I first read it, I was thoroughly intrigued. When we discussed it, and I reread that sentence, it suddenly made complete sense. Even though the Rosenbergs are only mentioned once more in the book, their execution serves as a symbol for the narrator’s struggle. In the first sentence, Plath sets the stage for her narrative, and gives a hint of what is to come.

As the plot progresses, more and more difficult material arises. On the back of the book, the blurb reads:

Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational…

Whoever wrote that, you were right. This book is brilliant but I found it to be quite disturbing on multiple levels. Insanity, suicide, near-rape, etc…(literally: et cetera.  I’m not listing it all out for you—I really don’t want to.) At the end of the book, I wondered if the brilliant writing was worth reading, because of the explicit content. My answer? Kind of. It depends on you, really. Are the ideas and themes important enough to you, for you to slough through such difficult scenes? Do you have a firm grasp on reality? It’s a strange question, but a necessary one. This book messes with your mind. As the blurb-writer says, Esther’s insanity seems quite rational.

For visual reference, the picture on the right is a bell jar. I gave one to my sister-in-law for Christmas, because she loves gardening. In The Bell Jar, Esther feels that she is being suffocated as a bell jar, like the one above, descends over her.

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