Book Reviews
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Suicide for Dummies – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I always get curious when a book is semi-autobiographical. Since it’s “semi,” I cannot help wondering which parts of the book are lifted from the life of the author. It could be that I am curious because some of what I am reading happened to someone, or it could be because things that happen in the real world are sometimes stranger than entirely fictional books.

References of Sylvia Plath’s works in pop culture are abundant, especially in movies where college students who are too cool to care think that poetry reading is the best way to get a date. I am not that into poetry, but hey, I have to try reading Plath. Good thing she has this novel, The Bell Jar.

Reading the foreword of my edition is like a preparation for another depressing read. Sure, the premises are that: straight-A Esther Greenwood, despite her writing talent and the promise of a good, if not brilliant future, goes bonkers. Instead of continuing her studies with a scholarship grant on tow, she goes straight to an asylum and gets this feeling like she’s a specimen caught under a bell jar. But is it only during her stay in the asylum that she had the bell jar around her, or has it long been above her head with the people around her scrutinizing the way she acts?

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remembered everything.

I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco’s diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon’s wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a gray skull.

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them.

But they were part of me. They were my landscape.

The Bell Jar is surprisingly hilarious for a book that talks about angst and suicide and insanity. I found it very engaging because it felt like a semi-autobiographical account of my college days, a phase in my life where I felt displaced from everywhere I turn. It’s either she had me in mind while she was writing it or I told her by way of a time-space glitch of the things that she had to write.

Reading this is an affirmation that I am not alone in the random thoughts that I laboriously entertain, such as the dilemma that I always have when giving service tips. I’ve read in a men’s magazine that an acceptable tip would be 10% of the total charge, but what if that amount wouldn’t even let you buy a can of soda? Tipping becomes really problematic for me when it comes to haircuts. Mine usually costs Php 150.00. Should I hand over Php 15.00? Should I ask for the change if I give a rotten Php 20.00?

I was in stitches when Esther weighs the tipping questions inside her head. In a way, it’s like visualizing what the society expects from her, and the society expects her, as dictated in the magazine that I read, to give 10%. Instead of being thanked, she gets scathing remarks for it.

This is just one mindless example. I actually think I overthought that one, forced it even to make it connect to the grand theme of fitting in to social conventions. Being a young adult, Esther is expected to do this, to feel like this, to look like this; in other words, she has to meet people’s expectations. As if this pressure weren’t enough, her feelings of inadequacy bob up the surface of her consciousness every so often that she feels like a failure when she has not yet even failed.

There’s also her need to explore sexually. Women of the 50s are expected to remain a virgin until after marriage, but she doesn’t understand why she should be when men are not rebuked for being experienced prior to settling down. Her exploration results to a relationship only bound by sex, whose very foundation is broken as soon as her hymen is ruptured.

4 star - really liked itEsther is trained to win. She should always get the prizes after each win. The problem is, she wants a lot of things that cannot be held in both her hands. Another problem is, life gets complicated after the academe. The contests are set on larger scales. It’s harder to win the games after school, but since Esther is always a winner, she can’t help but feel the mounting pressure. She can’t not win.

She gets depressed. She obsesses with suicide. She goes mad.

But her madness does not totally destroy her. She even learns and grows from it despite the traumatic methods that psychiatric doctors employed during the time that this novel was written. In some ways, this is a coming of age novel, although not your typical one. Esther can be kind and gentle, but she can also be ruthless in her selfishness. If anything, this deserves to be read to get a glimpse of the troublesome thoughts that invade the narrator as she goes back and forth between the blurred borders of madness and sanity.



  1. I read The Bell Jar in high school and still have my dog-eared copy on my shelf, next to a book of her poetry. She had an interesting way of describing how she felt. I especially liked the metaphor with the figs (or were they plums?) rotting on the tree because she couldn’t decide which one to pick.


    • They are figs! I read this with a group of bookish friends, and they (we) also found this a striking metaphor. Thanks for dropping by! :)


  2. You’re done already? I am stuck at Chapter 9. Nagka crisis kasi, ayun tuloy parang nawala na ang enthusiasm ko. But I’ll finish this definitely. Di ko lang alam kelan. ;)


  3. I read Bell Jar decades ago, but recall loving it — for her insight and feminism perhaps and her wit! Hard not to admire Plath in ways.


  4. I’m glad you mentioned the novel’s humor. That comes through in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s audiobook version. I spend some time comparing Plath’s experiences with how she writes about them in her novel. My biography, AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH, will be out in late January. In November, I’ll start tweeting passages from it using #American Isis.


  5. I have The Bell Jar in my TBR for some days now. I’m going to read this very soon, I hope. Seems really interesting. =)


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