The Bell Jar

Column: Classics In Review   |   Date Published: Wednesday, 29 July 15   |   Author: Shu-Ling Chua   |   1 year, 11 months ago

     Sylvia Plath [Faber and Faber Limited; 1999]

It creeps up on you.

One day you’re laughing over dinner with friends and the next you’re wondering, “Is this it? Is this all there is?” – wishing you could just curl up and hide from the world.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical account of Plath’s slide into depression and subsequent treatment, told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Esther Greenwood. The story opens with a prestigious magazine internship in New York. It’s supposed to be the experience of a lifetime, but something’s not quite right. And Esther knows it.

This sense of unease builds as Plath skilfully draws the reader in, closing each chapter with a cliffhanger. From the opening line, “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York,” to its bittersweet conclusion, Plath weaves humour through the heartbreak with a knowing wink.

Brutally honest, heart-wrenchingly tragic, but what wit!

Plath tells her story the way she wants to. And the thing is, what she has to say is just as relevant now. We’re told: “You can be anything you want to be,” but the truth is, you can’t. (Just look at Girls...) The world is not your oyster. To grow up is to come to terms with this.

We might laugh at the gender expectations and double standards of 1950s America, but they too linger on today. The world is filled with treacherous men (and women). Esther’s exquisitely acidic descriptions of such characters and disillusions with life are utterly relatable. Asked what she wants to do after she graduates, she admits, “I don’t really know.”


“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”


The second part of the story, set in a series of mental hospitals, is a less enjoyable read. It is harrowing, but one feels far from giving up on Esther. Plath lays it all bare without a trace of self-pity. And that – even if you don’t like her writing – is to be admired.

The Bell Jar encapsulates the confusion and pain of transitioning into adulthood. Thankfully, we have options today that were denied Esther. But ‘choice’, as we learn, is paralysing too.

Plath’s one novel, so vivid in its imagery, will stay with me through my twenties. Sparkling like a cold cut diamond, hiding a heart of vodka, it is a coming-of-age story unlike any other.


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