The Bell Jar

Rating: +

Sylvia Plath

I thought that this was a very well written book. It's a loosely autobiographical story about a young woman who is trying to figure out her path in life and eventually loses control of her life and ends up in a mental institution. The book starts with the woman, who is a college student, having won a job (along with a group of other women) for the summer working for a women's magazine as an editor. Rather than using the experience to make contacts and work towards her goal of becoming a writer, she neglects those obligations and goes out to experience life in New York City. After returning home without having distinguished herself and finding that she hasn't been accepted to the writing program that she was going to attend during the second half of her summer, she decides to just spend the summer writing a book. However, depression quickly catches up with her and the struggle against writers block becomes a struggle of whether life is worth living or not.

A major theme in this book is the narrator and her friends' relationships with men. The narrator has a boyfriend who has proposed to her, but he has some disease (tuberculosis maybe?) and is in a health asylum of some sort until he gets better. Also, she doesn't know that she wants to marry this guy. So she spends a lot of time thinking about that situation and what she wants to do about it. As the book goes on you find out more about their relationship and why they started dating and why this uncertainty has come up.

On a more abstract level, the narrator is bothered by the fact that men can sleep around and then still have their reputations and get married but women cannot. She feels that this is very unfair and is torn between wanting to change that and believing the things that her family and church have told her about the proper role of women and sex.

I felt that this book did a good job of communicating the emotions of a young woman trying to figure out what to do with her life, what her place in the world is, and ending up too overwhelmed by the whole situation to do anything at all. Surprisingly, I didn't find the book depressing even though I was able to identify with the narrator. The story being told is interesting, but I think that it is the way that it is told that makes it work.

As a side note, while I was in the middle of reading this book I happened to watch "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". The movie does a very good job of capturing the book, I thought. And there were substantial similarities between the mental institution as it was presented in this movie and as it is shown in The Bell Jar. For one thing, the patient's experience with electroshock therapy as described by Plath felt very close to the way it was shown in the movie and the character's reactions to it. But it wasn't so much the factual similarities as the tone and the emotion of the two presentations. I thought that that was interesting, particularly given that the situation of the two narrators is so different.


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