The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

So last night was Book Group which I shall report back on in more detail in a blog below this one later. ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath was the book up for discussion, a book that I have always been intrigued in reading but haven’t ever picked up. Bizarrely I now have two copies as though I had a copy of Faber’s re-issue I then saw a fabulous psychedelic 60’s copy and grabbed it as it looked so special. Enough of the outside though, what did I think of what the delightful cover’s contained?

‘The Bell Jar’ was and is Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel. Published in 1963 a few months before she committed suicide though no one actually knows when she wrote it. This is the tale of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who seems to have it all, a debutant in New York taken on as an intern into the world of fashion media from the American country side and how this leads to some sort of breakdown.

The book is definitely one of two halves. The first in the busy and hectic setting of 1950’s New York where pretty much whatever Esther could want she is able to get. Her life evolves around freebies, lunches (one ending in a hilarious taxi ride and bathroom encounter of debutant food poisoning and its effects), parties and meeting strange and fascinating men. You would think this would be every young woman’s dream and indeed Esther once did though by the time we meet her it’s clear the shine has worn off. Everything is routine and alongside Doreen she starts to rebel, when this doesn’t work she simply counts down the days till she can be home writing and waiting for her scholarship to start.

The second part of the book is set ‘back home’ after the city life Esther finds herself more unhappy and once she is told (by her hopeless mother) that she no longer has a scholarship her dreams of writing are shattered and from this point on we watch as Esther methodically plans killing herself.

I had always thought that ‘The Bell Jar’ was an oppressive novel which may by the end leave you as depressed as the narrator. I didn’t find it so. Yes it’s incredibly dark, there is no mistaking that, but some of it is incredibly witty. I had no idea there would be so much humour in this book. Though I wouldn’t want her as a friend I loved Esther’s voice. Her opinions on everything, though she only ever has them internally, are incredibly observant and dry. I actually laughed out loud when she see’s her ‘forced’ beau naked and lets us know just what she thinks of that sight. One minute she is magnificently manipulative and cunning, the next she is naïve hopeless and childlike and always strangely likeable and irritating in one.

Is it autobiographical? I don’t think we will ever know how can we? I do in a way wish there was more of Plath’s fiction as I would definitely be an avid reader. I must admit as I am not the biggest fan of poetry I have never read her poems but I am definitely going to give them a go.

I am really pleased to have read it finally, so pleased that both editions are now firmly ensconced on my bookshelves. I think its one of those books where if you haven’t read it then ‘you always mean to read it’, do you know what I mean? So what about all of you out there, what do you think of ‘The Bell Jar’?

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27 Comments

Filed under Book Group, Faber & Faber, Review, Sylvia Plath

27 responses to “The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

  1. A great summation of the book; you’ve managed to highlight a lot of what I enjoyed about it and Esther Greenwood’s unique voice.

    I am not a huge poetry fan either but Sylvia Plath’s poetry is interesting, to say the very least.

    I already had a copy of the book that’s also psychedelic – it looks like a Warhol painting. I loved the Faber copy thought; it felt lovely!

    • Thanks Claire, I only apologise that I havent responded to all of this sooner. I don’t think that I will love Plath’s poetry as I find poetry un-me at the best of times but this has definately intrigued me I will say.

  2. Thanks for the review! This is a book I have been meaning to read, literally forever. It’s interesting to note that while you found it very dark, it wasn’t as oppressive as many fear it will be. I must read this soon!

  3. I keep hearing about this novel, but had put it off thinking it would drag me down. Apparently not, which is nice t know. Great review!

    • Seriously Sandy I think that this book has gained a very unfair reputation for being opressive and its not, its dark and slightly uncomfortable parts but then a lot of great fiction is.

  4. Great review! I didn’t find this book dark at all and was amazed at how long we were able to talk about it for – it had so much going on in it.

    Great choice for a book group!

    • Why were you amazed how long we talked for lol? I think whats brilliant about book groups (which I will blog about soon) is that you find so much more out about the book than you realised you had spotted through discussion. I am still amazed you didn’t find this even slightly dark.

  5. justicejenniferreads

    I agree. I started reading Plath’s poetry and then for the longest time just meant to get around to reading The Bell Jar. When I finally did, it wasn’t anything that I expected. Sure, it had the darkness that Plath is known for, but as you said, it was also comical. Esther’s voice was surprisingly likable. The book isn’t one of my favorites, but I do believe that it is a book that everyone should read just for the experience of reading it.

  6. lena

    The Bell Jar is one of those books that I read when I was really young and am revisiting now. I purchased a gorgeous copy of it yesterday and am halfway through. I’m really glad you liked it. You should give her poetry a go – everything she wrote was incredibly beautiful.

    • It was interesting to hear those readers at book group who were revisiting it and their changed opinions of the book which suprised me. We decided not best for reading before your 18 hahaha.

  7. Have I already commented on here about how much I dislike this book? If so, sorry of being redundant, but here’s my review…I’m glad that you liked it more than I did, though also glad that you wouldn’t want her for a friend, because I’m not sure what that would say about you… 😉

    http://bibliofreakblog.com/fiction/bell-jar-iby-sylvia-plathi/

    • It would say that I make friends with people from all backgrounds and walks of life? I think she would be a prefect example of someone who is so nice to you you think you are friends. We needed someone who loathed it at the book group as it would have made the delightful discussion even livlier.

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  9. novelinsights

    Isn’t it funny that alot of people re-read this novel at different stages of their lives? I think you really are right with your point about the two sides to her personality – manipulative / naive. Great first book group choice.

    • Awww thanks, its one that I had always always wanted to read and now I have hoorah! I loved the fact some of you had read it before. It’s interesting how re-reading books at different times can leave a different impression of a book!

  10. oh

    Read it in college. I was awed and disdainful at the same time. I knew it was quite a “writing” piece but wasn’t ready for the truth of it, of her letting the story go the way it did.

    Several years ago, I saw the movie SYLVIA on a long flight and wouldn’t normally have watched it but there was nothing else. It communicated the loneliness as well as her attempts to buck up, but Ted (husband) according to the movie, did little to help and well, you know the ending. I should reread the book to experience again Plath’s long-standing talent.

  11. Glad you enjoyed it, Simon. Sounds like it generated a good discussion at the meeting. I think I missed the humour the first time round (or I certainly don’t remember it), so reading it for the second time was a delight: it gave me quite a few chuckles!

    So, tell me, what’s the next book we’re supposed to be reading??

    • It was a lovely meeting, though you were very much missed. Thank you for emailing your thoughts as we used them to start the discussion, so you were very much there… I will do this next month as can’t make it. I will send an email and log the next book today, I wrote it down as keep forgetting the authors name, but dont have the post it on me.

  12. I just visited another book club member’s site and wrote how much I admire this book. Though written in early 1960’s it’s really about America in the 1950’s. The mindsets are soooo 50’s. I suspect there were many women who thought the same things Esther did but had never heard another woman say them or write them.

    I found it all very relevant to today when I first finally got around to reading it a few years ago. Now with all this discussion, I think I may give it another go.

    • We did definately discuss the roles of men and women and particularily the options, or lack of them, that women had back then. Makes for fascinating reading in that sense also.

  13. Great review! I am pleased to find that while the book is dark, it did not leave you feeling depressed somehow. I want to read this book, but have been a little timid since I heard it was “dark and moody” and it is hard to gauge how dark a book is when that is all that you get about it. Thanks again for the review.

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  16. Sapphire

    I want to read the bell jar soooo much but It’s not available in the boookstores of my city and I’m not used to Ebooks 😦 can you please tell me if I can get a free copy of it, i mean are you aware of any giveaway of this book?

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