Severe depression, like other mental illness, can be difficult for a non-sufferer to fully understand. Sylvia Plath based The Bell Jar on her own experiences. An American poet who was married to the poet laureate Ted Hughes, Plath committed suicide in 1963 after a long history of depression. Her novel, written in the first person, is a realistic and haunting account of a young woman's mental breakdown.
Esther is 19, and at the beginning of the book she is one of 12 girls who have won the chance to work for a month in New York on a prestigious magazine. It is immediately apparent that Esther is intelligent and gifted: she is also the recipient of a scholarship to a distinguished "Eastern women's college." Yet the way in which Esther views her world is negative. She "was supposed to be having the time of her life" but felt empty, "moving dully along the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
As the narrative continues we see Esther finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressures of life at the magazine. Through flashbacks we begin to understand her more fully--the constant need to push herself, her low self esteem, and her need to conform. Outwardly, she appears successful and highly motivated, which contrasts sharply with her inner confusion and feelings of helplessness. By the time her month at the magazine is finished Esther is clearly no longer able to cope. On her return home she discovers that she has failed to be successful in gaining a place on a summer writing course. From this point her depression becomes severe.
Esther is sent to see a Dr Gordon. She is not sleeping, has not "washed her hair in three weeks," and cannot read or write. He prescribes electric shock treatment, which is described as a horrific and terrifying event. She discontinues treatment with him, her overbearing mother under the illusion that she had decided not to be like "those awful dead people at the hospital." Far from recovery, Esther begins to experiment with different ways of killing herself. This is described in graphic detail, the realism increased because of Plath's own attempts at suicide as a young girl for which she was admitted and given electric shock treatment. This is reflected for Esther, who after taking an overdose is sent to a psychiatric ward, first in the state run hospital and then in a private hospital.
Plath's use of plain language strongly evokes the thoughts and emotions of a depressive person: "I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue." This quality makes the book so powerful. On one level, it is the story of an outwardly successful girl, following her through her depression and several ill fated and at times amusing love affairs. On another level, however, it is a deeply personal account. Plath charts the course of the illness with insight and clarity. The reader is not expected to feel pity or sympathy for Esther, and at times she is not a particularly endearing character. She seems self absorbed, other characters being presented at times in an almost farcical manner.
The novel evokes a sense of understanding of what mental illness is like. It is an oppressive, all encompassing force that leaves Esther unable to function, feel, or understand. The imagery of the bell jar is very effective. After her second (more humane) series of electric shock treatments, Esther recounts: "The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air."
The Bell Jar is a highly readable work of literature. It is also a highly effective portrayal of depression, which provides the reader with valuable insight and hopefully greater empathy with those suffering from a debilitating and distressing disease.
Memo: Emma Nicholls is a final year student, St Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London
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