Why Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ Is Required Reading for Depression
Books shape us. They can transport us in place and time. Reading expands our worldview and helps us to see outside of ourselves. We all love a good story. As an aspiring writer myself, I’m always looking to read the next great story. I love the classics, and their ability to continue to be relevant despite the passage of time.
Mental health and disability can make for great plot lines and characters. It creates tension, enlightens us, awakens our human compassion. Even in today’s world, with all of our access to information, there seems to be still some stigma and mystery in regards to disability. The best way to understand someone is to really step into their shoes and know their story, and books allow us to do that.
The first time I read Sylvia Plath, I was amazed by her depth of feeling. She is a brilliant poet, deliberate and cutting with her words. Sharp and acidic, Plath knows how to convey the abyss of dark thoughts. As a teenager, I was assigned to interpret her poem “Sow” and that poem has stayed with me ever since.
Plath died by suicide at the age of 30. Knowing this makes her novel “The Bell Jar” that much more meaningful. The plot is simple and mirrors Plath’s own life. A very bright and gifted writer (Esther) struggles with depression and falls into deep despair, getting trapped in the symbolic bell jar. From the beginning, we are made aware that Esther is unhappy, and as the book progresses things only get worse.
There is a part where she describes sitting under a fig tree. There are so many ripe figs that all she has to do is reach up and pick one. There are too many, and she becomes overwhelmed by all the choices. Frozen in indecision, they grow too ripe, fall from the tree, and begin to rot on the ground all around her. It’s a metaphor for Esther’s life. She has such a bright future and all she needs to do is choose a path, but she cannot. She is frozen. Depression is so much more than just feeling sad. Esther is stuck, immobile, and seemingly unable to get out of her own thoughts. She describes herself as being “inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.” She is plagued with perfectionism and self-doubt.
I find this work to be so meaningful, not just because of Plath’s beautifully dark construction, but because this book is her. It was meant to be published after her mother’s death to spare the family any embarrassment due to the deeply personal subject matter and parallels to Plath’s own life and relationships. I don’t find anything embarrassing about this story. It’s tragic and heart-wrenching for sure. We want Esther to pull through, but ultimately Plath did not. This is a true trek into the depths of her depression, and I think it can help people understand her struggle.
Plath is a real pioneer, and I would recommend this as one of the best and most accurate portrayals of depression in literature. She’s also very forward-thinking in her evaluations of women’s roles in society and gender bias. It’s short and quick too, which makes this book a must-read. It is fiction, it is autobiography, it is a masterpiece.
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