A Look into Works on Mental Health: ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

Photo Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Celeste Powell
Staff Writer

I have a secret.

I’m a literary snob.

I hardly read any book written earlier than the 1940s.

Being this literary snob, I’ve come across the book title “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath multiple times while googling “books to read before you die” lists.

I finally broke down and thought I’d give it a shot.

When it finally came in the mail, I read all 244 pages in a night.

It was a time where young women adhered to strict dress codes of hats, stockings and gloves— New York in the 1950s.

The main character, Esther Greenwood, is awarded a job in New York by winning a fashion magazine contest.

She should be having the time of her life, but all she can think about is the electrocution of the Rosenbergs.

Esther is told by her superiors at her New York job that she must focus on her career if she wants to make it.

Esther is told by her mother that women must bear the fact that men will lead a double life, one pure and one not, while expecting their wives to remain pure.

Esther’s doctor diagnoses her “crack up” and prescribes electroshock therapy.

Her doctor sees it as the only treatment that will result in Esther’s normality.

Considering the 1950s isn’t renowned as an era of progressiveness, the doctor’s basis of such an intense treatment lays in Esther’s refusal to accept societal standards for women at the time.

After finishing the book in one night, I was left confused.

I saw nothing wrong with how Esther acted.

I believed it was completely understandable, and if I were in the situation, I’d do the same.

I couldn’t understand why “The Bell Jar” would be on BBC’s Top 100 books to read before you die.

My immediate reaction is that the story is average at best. But thinking deeper, I believe mediocracy is the reason it’s on the list.

Sure, people acknowledge mental illness, but getting others to understand and sympathize is the part that can’t be taught.

Reading “The Bell Jar” allows you access into not only Esther’s mind, but the mind of your relative or close friend who has a mental illness but is unable to explain how they feel.

Because you are in their mind, you don’t see what is irrational about their thoughts.

Esther’s mom exhibits a type of ignorance that those with mental illness sometimes encounter by saying, “’I knew my baby wasn’t like that…’I knew you’d decide to be alright again.’”

You understand their struggle.

It’s not their choice to be the way they are.

People don’t decide to wake up and be mentally ill and often, they wish they could be “normal.”

Looking back on the book after a few months of reading it, I realize maybe it is a little strange Esther hides in a crawl space and decides to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills.

Oh, and she did hemorrhage after her first sexual encounter.

Despite these odd events, I found myself emphasizing with Esther.

Plath does this by writing her novel as a diary.

Not in the way of “April 21, 1951”, with the I’s dotted with hearts, but in a way that you are captivated and Plath’s words become your own thoughts.

For this, I rate it a 7/10.

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