The Bell Jar


The Bell Jar by Syliva Plath tells the story of Esther as she descends into the depths of mental illness. Esther starts her story during a stint as an intern at a popular woman’s magazine. She is a young and intelligent, but also a little lost. She doesn’t click with any of the women who are part of the intern group, nor does she seem to fit into the accepted boundaries of society in the 1960s. Esther doesn’t buy into the idea of marriage or the so-called “duties” that were expected of women at the time.  The idea of being submissive clashes with her headstrong ideals and she refuses to play the game of accepted male/female roles. Most of her qualms concerning men and relationships has to do with the double standard that exists in terms of purity. The hypocrisy of the fact that men can go out and sleep with whoever with little consequence, while woman are expected to stay “clean” aggravates her.

Esther wants to be a career woman, but she has no idea what career path to follow. Her inability to fit anywhere in the private or public sectors triggers a deep depression that ultimately makes her suicidal. She refers to her mental illness as a “bell jar” that surrounds her and  forces her to breathe in the sour air of her own mind. There is no fresh air or the possibility that things could be different. Interestingly, towards the end of her illness, she uses the bell jar analogy to describe young women everywhere. It’s all too easy for a young woman to find herself stifled by what is expected of her rather than entertain the notion that it’s okay to break out of the mold. In effect, society as a whole is a bell jar. It’s a fitting descriptor for a time period when so many women felt trapped by the societal expectation of marriage, motherhood, and housewife expectations, (there is nothing wrong with these roles, but social norms made the concept of choice in these matters almost non-existent).

Plath chooses to tell Esther’s story in a first person narrative which makes it a very personal and emotional journey for any reader.  The writing is simple and clean, yet poignant and soulful.  Once you know Esther, you will never forget her.


c.b. 2011

19 thoughts on “The Bell Jar

  1. I’ve looked at the poster for this book many times. It hangs in the alcove where our group meets. Never got around to looking at the book but I will now. Sounds depressing but wonderful too. I love the idea of the bell jar. I have quite a few of those around the house holding different items.


    • I put off reading it for a long because I thought it would be too depressing, but I was so surprised to find that it’s not as dreary as you’d think! There is sadness but also a lot of strength. 🙂


  2. Susanne

    I read The Bell Jar early on in my writing career and was sadden as I read it knowing Sylvia Path’s ultimate end. She was brillant and died much to young. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t forgotten Esther’s struggle to conform, either.


    • I knew a little about Plath before heading into this book and it is sad. 😦 This is one of those novels where you’re never sure where the truth ends and the fiction begins. Perhaps that’s what makes it so real.


    • I admit I had low expectations going in, but my book was off the charts when I spotted it on the library shelf. As usual, the vibe was right! It’s a great book and I hope you enjoy it when you get your hands on it. 🙂


  3. I too have always had this book on my reading list and do believe that Sylvia Plath saw her fate coming in this. How despairing that such genius came at the cost of her illness, which so often happens. Great synopsis, just getting back and catching up with my blog reading and see you’ve been super busy while I’ve been gone, so I better catch up fast!


  4. I’m playing catch-up after a busy weekend. I’ve never read this book. Describing her mental illness “as a bell jar that surrounds her and forces her to breathe in the sour air of her own mind”, makes me wonder if the book is a heavy, dark read. Also, I wonder about the shape of a bell jar…I like the use of symbolism. I will add this book to my list…. Appreciate the summary.


    • The book isn’t as heavy as you think. Her pain is palpable, but so is her strength. Plath manages to strike a balance between the two that left me promising myself that I would never settle for less than a life on my own terms. In that sense, its an empowering read.


  5. Thanks for the comment.
    I love The Bell Jar and Sylvia Plath… but I’m obsessed with the fact that you’ve tagged this post as feminism. I’ve been claiming this as a feminist novel for years and everyone just rolls their eyes 🙂
    Love your blog!


    • How could it not be classified as feminist? I will argue that point to my last breath! Plath captures mid-20th century struggles in such a real way, it’s almost a chronicle of what real woman thought and felt during that time period. How lucky we are that she was brave enough to write it all down.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and I hope to see you around again. 🙂


  6. Thanks for the wonderful review. I’m definitely going to pick up this book, although perhaps will only read the first part, seeing as I’m hopeful about my own career transition at the moment. Enjoy your writing style and wealth of posts. Will subscribe now 🙂


    • Thank you for subscribing! I appreciate it so much. 🙂

      I hope you enjoy the book. Even though parts of it are heartbreaking, it is an empowering read from start to finish.

      Good luck as you transition in your career.


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