Mental Health in Fiction: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Mental Health in Fiction: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Exeposé Books takes a look at representations of mental illness in fiction. Sophie Beckett, Online Books Editor, argues that The Bell Jar contains an insightful portrayal of depression as well as an exploration of some of the universal issues facing students, both in the 1960s and the present day.

belljarAny discussion about the representation of mental illness in literature will sooner or later arrive at Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. Published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”, the novel describes the descent of its protagonist, Esther Greenwood, into mental illness resulting in a series of suicide attempts.

Esther Greenwood is supposed to be having the time of her life. A college student, she’s spending part of her summer holidays interning at the prominent Ladies’ Day magazine in New York City. This internship, widely coveted and difficult to obtain, is designed to give Esther and the other college students a chance to live the glamorous New York life as well as gain experience on the magazine. Esther knows that she’s living a life which thousands of girls covet and yet she feels unhappy and disorientated.

“Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself.” Esther has worked hard for this opportunity and by all external measures she has been successful. Yet New York for her is dizzying rather than thrilling, superficial rather than romantic. She feels numb and disconnected from the world around her.

Sylvia Plath in 1957
Sylvia Plath in 1957

When she returns home this feeling only becomes worse. She likens her descent into depression to being trapped under a bell jar (a piece of laboratory equipment used to contain vacuums). With this metaphor Plath vividly evokes the sense of turning inwards which many sufferers have described as an element of depression. “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.” Esther cannot connect with the world around her; the illness is her reality and everything outside her own head appears flimsy and unreal. Her mother appears to think that Esther can choose to be well again, but the bell jar metaphor makes it clear that her illness is no matter of choice. 

The novel deals insightfully with every stage of the illness, from its slow but seemingly inevitable onset, through its bleakest depths, to Esther’s process of slow recovery once she finally meets a doctor she feels able to trust. The novel is semi-autobiographical and its unflinching portrayal of Esther’s illness is likely to have been inspired at least partially by Plath’s own struggle with clinical depression. In fact, when you look into the matter closely, the parallels between the novel and Plath’s own life are so close and painful that it can be difficult not to read it as more than a work of fiction. However, autobiographical or not, the novel is undoubtedly enriched by Plath’s experience of the bitter reality of mental illness.

The Bell Jar is an account of depression but its first chapters, set in New York City, are arguably also an account of the confusion that many of us undergo at Esther’s age. She is at a stage in her life characterised by uncertainty and change which will be familiar to many students. It is the summer before her final year of college and she cannot imagine what she will do after she graduates. She has spent her whole life in education with its clear systems of rules and rewards. She has adapted well to this world, winning a slew of prizes and achieving consistently high marks. Yet she has no idea how to succeed after she leaves it.

Image Credit: Sally NZ
Image Credit: Sally NZ

One of the most powerful images in the novel is of a fig tree. Esther visualizes this tree and sees each fig growing on it as representing a different role available to her. However, she believes that she can only take one fig. She can have a happy home and a family, she can be a successful poet, she can be a brilliant editor, but “choosing one meant losing all the rest.” Thankfully, it is now possible for women to have both a career and a family, but the impossibility of Esther’s choice continues nonetheless to resonate with students. We are overwhelmed by possibilities and could be almost anything if we really wanted to, and yet the very nature of these possibilities means that as soon as we choose to pursue one of them, the rest disappear. We are at risk of becoming paralysed with indecision, caught, like Esther, “in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death.”

The Bell Jar is known for having a great deal to say about women’s lives in the sixties, and about Plath’s own experiences. In my opinion, whilst it contains important messages about both of those subjects, it also has a much more universal appeal. It gives us one of the most powerful explorations of mental illness in modern literature. It also contains a nuanced depiction of problems that will affect many young people at some point even if they don’t have a mental illness. People like Esther Greenwood might feel that they have no justifiable cause for complaint, but this novel can help them realise that their problems are as valid as anyone else’s, and just as deserving of help.

Sophie Beckett, Online Books Editor 

You can like Mind Your Head Society on Facebook to keep up with their Mental Health Awareness Week events and take a look at our highlights here.

Also, don’t forget to like Exeposé Books for more reviews and features from the literary world. 

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