The Bell Jar Book Review

By tess Alekseev

Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical book The Bell Jar is a difficult topic. It’s the poet’s only novel, published in England just a month before her suicide in 1963, and posthumously in America in 1971.

On one hand, many argue that it’s a classic, and that it should be compulsory in high school literature courses: it’s witty, it’s heartbreaking, and it reaches to impossible depths of the human psyche. On the other, it’s criticized for being too depressing, too graphic, and try-hard.

The novel begins with Esther Greenwood, a college-age girl from Massachusetts, completing an internship in New York City for a fashion magazine. She returns home to find her plans for the future have been thrown off course, and falls into a downward spiral.

It is this downward spiral that characterizes The Bell Jar for what it is: a different sort of coming of age story that deals with poor mental health, care for mentally ill women, and the expression of female sexuality in the 1950s. Plath writes as if she herself lived it– and she did.

It is easy to draw the comparisons between Esther and Sylvia: both live in Massachusetts, both are aspiring writers, both lost their fathers at a young age, and both attempt to overdose with sleeping pills after electroshock therapy.

This puts the novel in a new light: It’s Plath’s fictionalized autobiography. Plath committed suicide a month after the first edition of The Bell Jar was published– the last of her works that was not published posthumously. Though it is over 50 years old, it still has great value as an insight into the crack-up of Sylvia Plath, and is widely regarded as an American classic.

The 50th anniversary edition’s cover. Photo courtesy of Melville House.