#BookSnapSunday – The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It is a fine novel, as bitter and remorseless as her last poems…The world in which the events of the novel take place is a world bounded by the Cold War on one side and the sexual war on the other …This novel is not political or historical in any narrow sense, but in looking at the madness of the world and the world of madness it forces us to consider the great questions posed by all truly realistic fiction: What is reality and how can it be confronted?…Esther Greenwood’s account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.

(Robert Scholes, New York Times Book Review)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia was first published in 1963 under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. Tragically Plath committed suicide just one month later, so never saw it published under her own name. The novel is a fictionalised memoir of some of the events that occurred earlier in Plath’s life and opens with the main character, Esther Greenwood, in New York on an internship. It then follows her return home and descent into madness as she struggles to forge her own identity in a patriarchal society that only viewed women as wives and mothers. Esther is smart and witty, talented and observant, but feels suffocated by the small life that 1950s America has prescribed for women. 

The bell jar imagery has often been interpreted in different ways. In science bell jars were used in experiments to form a vacuum. There is a common experiment that involves placing a bell jar over a lit candle. Unsurprisingly the flame is extinguished, thus demonstrating the need for oxygen to fuel a flame. The same can be said for the human spirit. When any group in society is pressured to fit within a very narrow role or identity, their talents, strengths and potential are limited, their true identity suffocated and extinguished.

Bell jars were also used to display items in a dust-proof environment. In a patriarchal society, women are predominantly seen in relation to the role that they perform for men, such as wives and mothers. Instead of being a unique and gifted person in their own right, they are perceived as a male appendage or accessory; an object of beauty to be gazed at; a trophy. It is a narrow, confined and shallow life that leads to a mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual death, as the vibrant and creative essence of women is extinguished. 

The Bell Jar also deals with the theme of mental illness. The perception and treatment of mental illness during this time was prejudiced and harsh. Esther’s treatment in an asylum under the care of a male doctor is very disturbing. This part of the narrative is somewhat disjointed reflecting Esther’s state of mind and diminishing grasp of reality. While I enjoyed Esther’s commentary on her time in New York, the second part was a bit sad and depressing, although it finishes with a note of hopefulness. 

I have tried to capture the book in the photo above with items that represent the narrow view of women’s identity during the 1950s. The cup and saucer and teddy bear reflect the domestic and maternal role, while the mirror represents the idea of women as sexual objects to be gazed upon rather than engaged with in an interpersonal, intellectual and emotional way.

An interesting and thought-provoking read.

2 thoughts on “#BookSnapSunday – The Bell Jar

  1. Wonderful book snap, great symbols to capture the theme. I always find Plath’s writing, especially the poetry haunting to say the least, especially when considering her own life story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read any of her poetry yet. I have been a bit poetry-shy since my high school english experience, but I would like to get into reading some poetry. I wish there was an English Lit Introductory course into poetry. It might help some of us conquer our fear.

      Like

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