The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: A Book Review

A Book Review of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I had read some Sylvia Plath in college.  It was a poem.  I don’t remember which one it was, but it left that sort of sad soul drain that you feel after you read something both really profound and depressing.  After reading The Bell Jar, it was really much the same feeling, although intensified about a million times.  I vaguely knew that it was sad and kind of a downer, but I wasn’t really expecting The Bell Jar to be as good as it was though.  Not even close.

The Good:  The writing.  Plath’s prose is interesting and fractured.  The language is not totally outdated – it is still entirely approachable to the average reader with enough depth behind the words to satisfy the staunchest literary critic.  I love this – I think that there are major differences between a good story and good writing.  Good writing is beautiful – it flows and it conveys layers of meaning that you can analyze.  It also does something different.  A good story is a great plot.  It is compelling and easy to understand, at least to the degree that you can follow where the author wants you to go – and you simply can’t put the book down.  You can have good writing without having a good story and vice versa.  However, when you have both, you have good literature. The Bell Jar is an example of good literature.

The subject matter.  If you know anything about this book, then you probably know that it very, very closely resembles Plath’s own life and experiences.  She used “confessional writing” and when you compare the plot of the book to a  biography, you see the parallels immediately.  This makes it all even more powerful, as you can tell that Plath is speaking from experience as she details Esther Greenwood’s various mental states.  I imagine that Plath is among the best at  conveying and capturing the drowning feeling of depression to those who have not experienced it themselves.  It’s heartbreaking and compelling, but it opens a conversation about mental illness and the stigma that still hangs around it – it’s a conversation that we still need to have.  I think that through Plath and this novel, we get a glimpse into it.  It’s fleeting, but it’s enough to make a last impact.  We might not be able to relate or totally understand (or maybe some suffering like Plath can) but being exposed to it and seeing the humanity in it is enough.

The Bad: For some, the darkness.  It starts with a slight leaning to the pessimistic.  And then it falls into the utterly sad area.  There is this build up of tension and more tension and suddenly it burst into this really violent, hopeless moment.  It just continues to get more bleak after that moment, that turning point made for the worse.  This is not a light read, but one that I think is worth every bit of bleakness.  I will say that it is still well done and maybe, oddly, even more compelling and intriguing in its darkest moments.

The Verdict:  If you are looking for something light and happy, this is not for you.  It’s the opposite of the feel-good read.  It’s also mostly serious – it has very approachable language as stated before, but mental health is a pretty serious issue, and this book prompts questions about it.  If you can handle a depressing and thought provoking read, or perhaps are in the mood for one, this is an amazing, under-appreciated novel.

Written by Rachel B.

Rachel is a co-creator and writer at Definitely Not for the Birds (DNFB). She recently graduated with a degree in English. Presently, she writes, reads, and then reads and writes some more, with a giant and ever-present mug of green tea in her hand. Follow Rachel @rrbindl and DNFB @not4birds