Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ promotes self-identity search

Written By Chandni Shah, For The Globe

Photo by Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, usually my first response is “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, and when they ask why I tell them that if I had to pick a book that clearly renders the search for identity — which we all at some point chase — it would be this one.

The novel follows the main character, Esther Greenwood, and her descent into madness, as she loses herself within the deep labyrinths of her own mind. Plath constructs this character as a reflection of herself — a parallel to her life, classifying the book as semi-autobiographical. Both are riddled with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, living in a world where they just don’t conform to who society wants them to be. One part of her wants to be a writer, but the other, a mother and a wife.

Plath begins the novel with Esther in the city of New York working for a fashion magazine with other college students, but she feels like she doesn’t fit in with them and the glamorous atmosphere. After she leaves the city, Esther sinks down deeper into the abyss of madness and attempts to commit suicide on multiple occasions. She almost accomplishes this, but she is found and brought to the hospital in time. When she leaves the hospital she is brought to a ward where she receives electric shock therapy in an attempt to make her mind well again.

The symbolic bell jar entraps Esther throughout her life, preventing her from making new connections with the people around her and severing the ones that she had. It distorts the way she views herself, other people and the world around her; and when it is lifted it is liable to drop upon her again. Plath writes, “the bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head,” for the moment, Esther can breathe the fresh air and see clearly, but realizes that it can possibly be an ephemeral state of mind and being.

Throughout the novel the reader sees that Esther has trouble recognizing herself, she doesn’t comprehend her own face in reflections — she is losing her identity. This loss of who she is plunges her deeper into depression and ultimately is what makes her devalue her life. The reader is shown the harsh realities of depression and how certain ideals set for women at the time (1950s) contributed to the way Esther saw herself.

About one month after “The Bell Jar” was published, Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven and inhaled toxic gas, killing herself at the age of 30. She was suffocated by the metaphorical bell jar and decided to leave. Even today’s society has expectations for people that they cannot fulfill, and we can only hope that the bell jar stays suspended above us, but is there a way to shatter it?

Sylvia Plath was both a mother and a writer at the time of her suicide, she managed to break the unwritten rules of the rigid world and became a well-known poet and writer. Writers tend to reveal either the horrific or beautiful truths about life and what it means to be human, sometimes even both. Maybe these truths were too much for Plath. “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”