“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.” ― Sylvia Plath,
The Bell Jar is (almost) modern prose; (almost) an autobiography; and (completely) a perfect piece of art. I could write for days about the poetry of the prose of Sylvia Plath. Of her mesmerising metaphors and allegories; the quickness of her mind and her unaffected writing style.
But as beautiful as our words could be, ultimately, they would be about depression. That’s what The Bell Jar is all about.
Sylvia Plath’s fight with this multifaceted demon lasts throughout her short life. She dies at the age of 30, after countless suicide attempts, leaving behind two very young children, numerous poems, and one novel – The Bell Jar. Half a century later, I’m as fascinated by it as all those before me, who’ve read it and attempted to write about it.
Sylvia Plath’s first suicide attempt is at the age 19, by swallowing her mother’s sleeping tablets and hiding under the house to die. She survives, by the skin of a miracle. The Bell Jar is about that summer, which marks the start of Sylvia Plath’s relationship with elusive Death.
In the novel her name is Esther and the book was first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, but it’s all about Sylvia Plath. Like Plath, Esther loses her father at an early age; like Plath, Esther spends a month in New York on a magazine scholarship; like Plath, Esther attempts to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. Esther leaves behinds a letter to her mother, which is, word for word, the letter Sylvia Plath leaves to her mother when she attempts to commit suicide.
Same as Esther in the book, Sylvia Plath gets inadequate help and dismal reactions to her depression symptoms: electroconvulsive therapy and her mother’s words “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”
In the 50ties, electroconvulsive therapy was all the rage when it came to treating physiological symptoms. It was prescribed and administered for epilepsy and kleptomania; depression and catatonic states. Esther/Plath receives electroconvulsive therapy during the months spent under psychiatric supervision. They appear to have helped. But the prose in The Bell Jar is like the skin of a maiden spread over broken bones. They threaten to puncture the surface and expose the pain and suffering bellow with every verb and noun.
In The Bell Jar, Esther talks about her doctors with humour and warmth, but her care and gentleness are not reciprocated. Painful and humiliating therapies – insulin shocks alongside the electroconvulsive – are administered.
The sketches of the women in the psychiatric hospital are like the pages of a ghost book. Esther/Plath keeps asking herself why are all these women in the hospital with her, when they appear so normal. Then the pains, the losses, the failure, the shame are revealed; as if through them Plath reveals her own feelings of inadequacy.
Esther’s best friend in the hospital is discovered hanging from the ceiling one morning. This successful suicide attempt is like an echo of the last suicide attempt Sylvia Plath would ever make. As if she knows success is only a matter of time. A delayed execution, that’s never far from her thoughts and would be, ultimately, part of her reality one day.