The Bell Jar is kind of a hard book, to both read and review. Going in, I had heard a lot of praise for it. I had gathered that it was about a girl struggling from depression. And when I started reading it, I found the narrator witty. She was witty. But then I kept reading and was floored by how unprepared I was for the rest of it.
If you think this book is simply about a girl who becomes depressed, then you’re going to be in for a major surprise like I was. This book is a raw account of a girl just completely spiraling out of control, and I dare not say depression is the issue, or at least not the only issue. This girl is suffering from an extreme nervous breakdown and even exhibits some symptoms of schizophrenia, and her treatment is not simply a few sessions with a counselor and a few pills, but inhabiting mental institutions (in the 1950’s I might add, when they didn’t have a clue about mental illness) where they would sometimes use electroshock therapy.
While I was reading, I remember thinking, the author has to have had some of these experiences. And sure enough, I ended up reading that this fictional book is practically an autobiographical account with a few changed details. It shows. I don’t know if you can fake being in the mind of someone who’s up is down, and down is sideways, and sideways in up, and is too overwhelmed with life and just wants to end it. Maybe someone could to an extent, but it just felt too real for it to be fiction, so I felt either this woman was a genius writer or she had lived it.
I’m glad I read this book. I felt it was an important read for me. But I am very glad I did not try to read this book 10 or so years ago. Being in my 20’s was a good time to read this, and it’s the time I would recommend others to read this. There is a lot in the story that many of us can relate to, about the uncertainty of the future when we thought we had it all figured out, and then you see how not everyone handles it the same way. I don’t mean that to say that our protagonist Esther, or the author, Sylvia, are weak, and those who don’t have these mental breakdowns are strong, because that’s not it. There are biological reasons why some people face mental illnesses and others don’t, and it’s no one’s fault. But we all process information differently, live out our lives differently, and this is a good reminder of that. We all feel a little lost at times, even if we don’t all experience it in the same ways.
I didn’t love how open the end of the book was, but I’m sure other people would like it fine. I can understand feelings on it either way, but it did not really resonate with me. I wanted to know Esther would be OK, but since Sylvia Plath wasn’t so sure if she would be OK I can see why she would end it that way. There were parts of this book I didn’t care for, and I don’t just mean uncomfortable moments, but I do think it was a story worth telling.
While reading this book I also could not help but compare it to a favorite book of mine, Finding Alice, about a girl struggling with schizophrenia. It is Christian fiction, but I don’t think it’s too overbearing in its message. In fact, Alice is from a home where religion sort of sucked the life out of her, and it’s only through her illness and the people she meets that she learns that it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, that way. I’d definitely recommend it if it sounds interesting to you. I do find it’s ending a lot more satisfying, though I understand it ends a little rosier than The Bell Jar, which some people may dispute isn’t as realistic. It just resonates with me personally a little more.
If you’ve read The Bell Jar, what are your thoughts?