Critic Score: B-
Reader Score: C
Published in 1963 under “Victoria Lucas,” this roman à clef (true story with invented names) has become an iconic piece of literary feminism and is a widely celebrated story of mental illness. Plath wrote The Bell Jar after publishing The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) and splitting from abusive husband and poet, Ted Hughes. The book was initially rejected by her publisher for being “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought.” Later picked up by Heinemann, the work received warm reviews, but shortly thereafter Plath tragically died by suicide. This augments the tragic nature of the book, which begins with young Esther Greenwood on a decline in mental health while interning at a New York magazine.
In essence, this novel was not introspective or contemplative enough for my taste and doesn’t take enough time to build theme. Instead, we are given very matter-of-fact scene in which Esther interacts with co-interns in socially unfulfilling ways. The prose itself doesn’t feel thoughtful enough and merely confessional. There’s very little consideration of mental illness on the narrator’s part here. I suppose that could fold into the author’s personal struggles and actual limited access to information at this time, which is heartbreaking and in this way, the book would function as a significant primary source on mental health issues in the 1960s.
But I can’t shake off that the writing feels surface level, like an article rather than literature. The style isn’t artful or rich or bold or immense. It feels plain and uninspired and constrained. I find myself agreeing with the original rejecting publisher. Again, these stylistic elements could be the point. But at moments when we finally get introspective, like during the realization of Esther’s initial symptoms of depression. I’ll remain spoiler-free on plot.
The concept of the bell jar is an effective one, but we discuss it in a fashion too obvious and cheap to feel meaningful or skillfully handled. I find myself most emotional toward Plath’s real life rather than the one she made for Esther.
While I think it’s valuable to publish a mostly-true account of someone who is genuinely mentally ill in order to get that authentic piece of fiction in people’s hands, I question the ethics of celebrating a novel that was written by someone who was soon after robbed of a happy ending. What flaws in the messages of this book does that tragic end point out? Maybe useful things rather than problematic ones. There’s definitely at least a fascination when pairing this text with Plath’s life.
What are the messages here? Or is the point of this not to relay themes and more so to depict an experience? I can see that working here; the text is useful because it’s honest and we can use it to come to conclusions outside of the narrator’s awareness of any.
Yet, I still felt that Esther’s experience was tame, dull, and quiet. There’s no explosive or despairing nature in her journey. It’s all very colorless, and I understand that this is how the mental illness made her feel, and that is so valid. The downside is that readers will find it harder to enjoy as a novel. A reminder: my reviews take personal taste significantly into account.
The character of Esther bored me, and I found her reflections to sound vague. The editors should have known to add more strength to this character, because clearly there is much beneath the surface of the text. I couldn’t find compassion for the Esther we’re shown. I couldn’t get myself to have any emotional attachment to this book, honestly. The second half interested me a little, and the last third was the best. But I very rarely felt invested, if I was ever at all.
I know this book means a lot to many people, so I don’t want to undercut the beauty they see in this text. It just ended up not being my cup of tea. While I stand by my claim that the writing itself is amateurish and first-drafty, the novel has made a strong impact on the mental health canon, and I can respect that if its readers aren’t hurt by the material.
Sylvia Plath’s poetic talents are perhaps a better entryway into her beautiful, perceptive mind—a mind for which The Bell Jar provides no spotlight.
How’s my review system work? I give stars out of five based on the averaging of two letter grades, Critic and Reader. My Critic Score is based on writing quality, contribution to culture, ethics, consistency, plot development, characters, style, originality, and overall how well the book accomplishes its creative and intellectual goals, among other factors. On the other hand, my Reader Score is a personal reflection on how much I enjoyed the work, regardless of what makes a book “good” or “bad;” it takes into account both entertainment value and my own tastes and life experiences. B is the median of my letter grades, with As for outstanding work and Cs for generally disappointing work. D and F grades are out of the ordinary and given when my disapproval is strong.