The Bell Jar

Thoughts   The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2006 Foreword by Frances McCullough 1996 (orig pub’d in America 1971), 266 pages

I’m trying to recall when exactly I learned who Sylvia Plath was and what she was about.    I am inclined to fess up that I didn’t know a thing* about her until book-blogging;  specifically  learning about books I *should* have already read by now.   But I don’t know.   Perhaps, I knew the sensational stuff – – that she was a poet who killed herself young, as a mother of two little ones.   But I really can’t say;  it’s fuzzy.

I’ve had The Bell Jar on my to-be-read list for years (I’ve been blogging over 4 years already?   huh.)

I knew it was a novel and that she usually wrote poetry.    (Actually, she wrote children’s books, too.)   But I didn’t realize all that I would encounter in this short book.     It was everything I hazily imagined it would be (startling thoughts by a young woman when it was not the time (1950s) to expect startling thoughts by young women) and I thought it would showcase depression.   AND THAT IS ALL I KNEW.    So it was NOTHING like what I expected!

I read this in one day.  If I had realized how fast I would devour this, I would have read it a long time ago.

Or, perhaps, it was the perfect time for me to read?   Who can question when and why some books come into our life.    I am just glad that I didn’t read this during one of my darkest days of college when I hated school, hated my major, was devoid of hope and felt like the whole concept of what I was supposed to be doing was just a crock of s%&#.

Then again.   I think this book does has hope.   I thought the ending and/or the last line brilliant!    But, it’s knowing now that Plath didn’t hold on to her hopes to quite escape her bell jar that is frightening.

A big thank you to Frances McCullough for a fantastic Foreword and thank you to the publishers for including the bit about Plath in the back of the book.    These parts book-end the heart of the novel in such a wonderful manner.

I rarely read Forewords.   This one is perfect.

Five slices of pie.

* I had never heard of Virginia Woolf, either.    What were they teaching in my high school?!

* HIdeinWhitetoSkipLine

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52 thoughts on “The Bell Jar

  1. I liked this one, too. Esther was complicated. There were times when I felt angry and frustrated with her, but there were other times when I felt that I understood her. I guess I felt an equal push-pull towards her character.

  2. I have to admit, I’ve been too intimidated to pick this one up so your review makes me breath a sigh of relief, like maybe it’s not above me after all!

    1. This is very accessible and not at all “intellectual” which is what I always think of the 50’s and lauded writings. And the tone is lighter than you would expect of the subject matter. The first part is all parties and exploring NYC and then it sucks you in to the drama.

  3. I read this one several years ago, and to be honest I don´t remember it very well, but I know that I really enjoyed this wonderful piece of literature. As I also knew something about her life, I feared it would be heavy and dark, but it didn´t strike me that way.

    1. I agree that the tone was not heavy. Perhaps, the books with heavy material need to be presented with light and humor so we don’t succumb to it completely?

  4. I think I need to re-read this one. I read it when I was in college but, for some reason, it is very hazy in my memory. Probably because that was a million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the planet.

    1. NO! I know what you mean about haze, though. I so often remember what I felt abt a book – whether or not I loved or disliked – but I forget the endings!

  5. She

    This one is fabulous, isn’t it? I read it last year and wondered why I hadn’t picked it up before! Do have to look into Virginia Woolf soon though . . .

    1. I get fearful of reading this ‘must-read’ books because of… Oh, I don’t know – peer pressure?! And even when I like them a lot, I wonder if I am bowing to that pressure. Shouldn’t be this complicated and it sometimes makes me question why I blog abt books at all. But anyway, Esther was fascinating – I’m fascinated about the writer, this book, the character and all that happened AND the time it was set in.

    1. Yes, I agree. And yet I also was tripped up by the time blocks near the end when they were first trying to figure out why she couldn’t sleep. I think I expected a tighter time frame going into this.

  6. I very foolishly read some of Sylvia Plath’s journals when I was writing a paper on her in college. She writes very interestingly in them, but she also self-dramatizes and exaggerates and goes all self-pitying, and it annoyed the hell out of me. Now when I read her poetry I keep thinking of the annoying bits of her journals; I expect it would be even worse if I reread The Bell Jar. But I probably will, anyway, because I remember almost nothing about it.

    1. My first thought to your comment here is fear that you ever get ahold of MY journals! For me, the reason to journal is often just a spewing out of bad thoughts so they are deleted from the brain. I think that is why reading journals can be dangerous; only the negatives are recorded from a battle of attempting to think ‘right’. The positives don’t get written down as much because the point of journaling is to sort it all out. Why are we so harsh on self-pity and whining. She wrote it down (perhaps) so she wouldn’t bore a friend in ‘real life’ conversation.

      1. You know, that is an excellent point. Now I feel like a jerk. :p I should read a biography of her to give me a better idea of what she was like with her friends.

        1. No, no. YOu are not a jerk and I didn’t intend to be all ‘reprimand-al’. It’s just that I know when I write out ‘crap’ into MY journal, I seriously hope no one ever ever reads it! Which is why my instructions will be like Mark Twain’s. No one will read for 100 years. Of course, no one will want to. (always a bit of something not right to say such things…)

  7. I read this book earlier this year and liked it a lot – I could really connect with Esther being uncertain about her future and her choices and experiencing the world for the first time. It’s going I’m not in a dark place though, that would have made it hard to read.

    1. The secret to happiness is something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. These are like legs to a tripod. I love this little recipe myself because when I get to feeling unhappy – I just attempt to fix which leg isn’t strong enough. Esther was confused on all of these legs, I think, but mostly the questions on what to DO and what to look forward to. And, her rejecting a path to marriage just made everything so shaky. Not to discount any mental chemical imbalance stuff…

  8. read this after college and liked it but didn’t love it as so many of the goth/beatnik/feminists in my high school did. i didn’t even know who plath was in HS, so don’t worry. we were busy reading ‘the elephant man’ and ‘the collector’.

    1. I don’t recall the goth/beatnik/fems in my high school years… And I don’t know ‘the collector’ – John Fowles!!! Nymeth just referenced him and I don’t know who he is.

  9. If you’re going to read the venerable Ms Woolf, I might suggest Mrs. Dalloway. She wasn’t tuaght in our high school, either, by the way but there was a senior lit class as an elective and taking it, I discovered Saul Bellow, DH Lawrence, Donleavy, Vonnegut and Woolf. Anyway, the movie Mrs. Dalloway (with Maggie Smith?) was darn good as well.

    1. Oh, thank you. I am NOW very familiar with VW and have read Mrs. D twice! AND enjoyed the movie. It’s just that I hadn’t heard of her until The Hours movie came out with Nicole Kidman and I still wonder why the schools didn’t teach her.

      I read Vonnegut in HS, was a Lawrence fan in college, but don’t know this Donleavy. off to go search. Thanks!

  10. Hmm… you’ve really intrigued me with this review! I have the book on my tbr pile so I’m really looking forward to it now. I love how you gave absolutely nothing away here 😀

  11. I haven’t read it yet either, and have the same preconceptions you had. I’m excited to see from your review that it’s not a long book – I might actually read this sooner now that I know.

    1. Expectations can really make me put off reading books I know I want to read but just can’t seem to choose when I reach for that what-next spot. I love when I get something different and I enjoy the experience.
      You won’t regret reading this one.

  12. This book has been on my wishlist for a long time, I’m so glad you liked it. I was waiting to buy this one because I thought it would be real depressing. But now I’m excited to read it 🙂

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  14. When I was fourteen years old, I had this book checked out of the library, and woke up at dawn one Saturday and started reading it in the dim gray light. Needless to say I finished it by 8 am. That was the perfect age and the perfect way to read it. (Who is not self-pitying and overly dramatic about her life at that age?)

  15. Jason handed me this book several months after we met. I didn’t like to read back then (or more accurately, I’d been disappointed with nearly every adult title I’d ever read, and the YA was horrible back then), so I was leery, but I ended up devouring this book. It was the only book I’ve ever read in the car, because I get carsick so badly. It didn’t make me carsick. A group of friends and I all went to a nearby river over Labor Day Weekend, and I hadn’t finished the book yet, so I locked myself in my friend’s little Geo Metro and read for another couple hours. I guess that means that it’s been 11 years this weekend since I first read the book…

  16. Anna, complex and yet so accessible/relatable? I was blown away.

    Jeanne, what a pleasure to recall where/when for such books? I am sad that I don’t remember much about books until only lately. I know I read a ton as a kid and yet it seems I missed the books everyone else read or I just don’t remember. Drama,drama,drama – it just FEELS (good). Thank you for sharing.

    Amanda, what a great story! It just makes me wonder what SP would think of all the acclaim and ongoing praise for her work that she gets. How do you fault ‘must-read-now-don’t-bother-me’ times like these? Thank YOU for sharing.

  17. There are so many things I love about The Bell Jar, but one is the way she can capture a person or a setting in an exact image that burns into your brain forever.

    Earlier this year, I compared Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood. Since Plath admired The Catcher In The Rye so much, there are lots of fun little shout-outs.

    1. I remember that post – it reminded me that I had to read The Bell Jar and that I need to re-read TCitR because I don’t remember much.

      So many books I’m glad to have read so that I ‘get’ references to them! I dare say, I will never be well-read ENOUGH. Just today, in my current read, I had a ref to Watership Down. SO GLAD I read that this year!!

  18. I am supposed to read this one with Eva at some point- we decided to read it together but never set a time frame on when. I look forward to the experience, though! It seems universally popular.

  19. I had no idea who Sylvia Plath until I bought this book on a whim one day. I loved this book totally and couldn’t stop wondering about the similarities between Esther and Sylvia. I knew this was almost-memoirish, but what got me was some of the sentences in the last chapter hinting how she could be sure that she would never be depressed again. I had that goosebump feeling there.

    1. Bought it on a whim? wow! So again, the stars were lined up right for it to be on a table at the bookstore when you walked by? I’m glad I read the version I had – it explains well in the forward AND afterword all the almost-memoirishness. (not a word?)

  20. Lisa P

    Hello, I just stumbled on your blog while reading up on Plath. My book club meets tonight to discuss The Bell Jar. I agree with the right timing for certain books – I read it in 2 days this weekend when some weekends go by and I barely feel like I have time to read the expiration date on the milk!

    While I was reading it I kept thinking about The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another story of a woman who did not seem to follow the social norms and struggled very much with it.

    Great blog!

    1. Very nice to meet you LisaP! Thank you for commenting. Aren’t book clubs awesome. It is so fun to talk books (thus the blog – I can’t get enough) and I am impressed you are choosing such a great book.
      I had read The Awakening a few years back; another thought-provoking woman-thinking-outside-her-cultural-expectations book.

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