Culling the Classics: 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Heinemann, 1963)
The first paperback edition, brought out in 1972, sold out the first printing of 375,000 copies in a month, and since then trade has been brisk. Total copies sold must number in the millions.
The Spoiler-Free Skinny
Esther Greenwood, a 20 year old college student, wins a summer internship to Ladies’ Day magazine. During that 1950s summer in New York, oppressed by stifling weather, stifling social norms and the impending execution of the Rosenberg’s for treason, Esther’s mental health slowly deteriorates.
You’ll Love It
The Bell Jar isn’t long and it isn’t complicated and it also has the virtue of not starring Holden Caulfield. Plath is very good at conjuring up the etiquette-laden atmosphere of the post-War era, when women were being forced back into the home practically at bayonet-point after the brief liberation of the war years, making it a must-read for anyone interested in how women still manage, 50 years later, to earn 25% less than men in comparable jobs.
You’ll Loathe It
Putting aside its position as a piece of social history, The Bell Jar might not inflict Holden on you, but Esther has to come a close second in the irritation-stakes. Esther is a frayed bundle of nerve-endings, possessor of All The Emotions, incapable of not taking every tiny little thing to heart. Introspective doesn’t do justice to Esther’s minute examination of her inner state, and while some of the events described have a comic edge, especially early on in the narrative, as Esther becomes acquainted with Ladies’ Day and its entourage, latter sections are painfully overwrought.
Read It Or Leave It?
Read it because of Plath’s language. Very few writers have her command, accuracy and confidence with words. She excelled as a poet (according to those who know – I’m not a fan) and this is her only venture into prose.
If you want to read one book about adolescent angst and no more (for which I could not blame you) then make that book The Bell Jar. It outclasses Catcher in the Rye for linguistic stylishness and avoids the plonking Messages of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden or Go Ask Alice. It’s less funny and pointed than Rae Earl’s excellent My Mad Fat Diary or Stephen Cbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but The Bell Jar also acts as a social document of a time when respectable women were expected to wear white gloves and a hat on Sundays, and having an opinion which differed from that of a man was practically a criminal offense. But The Bell Jar is one of those books best left until you’re safely past the storms of adolescence and early adulthood. Probably because you can’t read it without knowing something of Plath’s own tragic history, encountering The Bell Jar at an impressionable age might lead you into the trap of taking yourself way too seriously, a disease it can take years to recover from.
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