The Bell Jar: An Unsettling Read & A Poignant Reminder That Mental Health Is Real

The Bell Jar: An Unsettling Read & A Poignant Reminder That Mental Health Is Real

“Because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

About a month back, I was sitting on my terrace with a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on my lap. I just had one last chapter to read. 

I saw the sun setting on the horizon. A soothing, goldish glow touched the buildings and the offices and the factories around me, as well as the little bit of greenery, hardly any, that has managed to survive.

Literature has always prompted me to introspect. It has taught me to channel my thoughts in a direction that often interrupts my everyday musings. The deviation can be pleasant sometimes, and at times, extremely unnerving.

The Bell Jar made me think. It disturbed me, it unsettled me. It is not like many other novels that I have read.

I wrote this piece knowing that it will not resonate with those to have not read the book. It is for those who have read it, and those who wish to read it. 

So I sat on this slightly elevated part of the terrace and wondered how a woman, someone like you and me, would feel if she found out that she was a misfit in any role that she played in life — be it that of a mother, a daughter, a partner, a friend or a caregiver. 

I wondered how a woman with her own dreams and aspirations would feel if she could not adapt to society’s expectations.

How would she feel when she realised that she was chillingly different from the other women who are always able to conform to the role that has been earmarked for them by society?

Not uncommon today, right? So many of us are so different, such misfits and so often called “unwomanly”. Despite everything, we are fighting our way through.

Esther Greenwood – A Projection of Plath’s Own Personality

But when I gave it a little thought, I realised how difficult it would have been to win this battle had I been born in the early twentieth century.

I am so much like The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood, and yet Esther had to struggle so much more than me — because there are scores of people to support me and Esther was alone. My heart aches for Esther. What a curse loneliness must have been for her!

To provide a little background for the readers, here’s who Esther Greenwood is — she is the protagonist of Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, through whose eyes Plath narrates her own story. 

Esther belongs to a modest background. She is bright, hardworking and ambitious. She wins a prize that gives her an opportunity to work as an intern with a fashion magazine in New York for a month. 

Once in New York, Esther tries to fit in with the other girls. She tries to adapt to the heady New York high life. 

This is the time — a time that should ideally have risen Esther’s spirit — when she gradually begins to get trapped inside a bell jar. The air inside the bell jar is poisonous. It’s unbearable.

The Bell Jar
A young Sylvia Plath (Credits: Vulture)

Through various experiences in the city, Plath in her autobiographical novel tells us how Esther dives deep into a mental breakdown as she loses all hopes of a happy life.

Esther returns home and is rejected from a writing course. Assuming that she can no longer write as well as she did, she drops out of college. When she is faced with the option of having to settle in with the “correct job” and the “correct man”, it only adds to her despair.

Her depression spirals downwards — down, down until she finds herself in an abyss from where coming back looks unlikely. 

Esther describes her feelings of alienation as being trapped inside a “bell jar” that steals away her happiness. She feels disconnected from herself and from the world, so much so that she stops functioning at one point, and refuses to even take a bath.

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The Bell Jar represents mental illness like very few books, before or since. Years after the novel was written, talking about mental health has remained a taboo. The moment we talk about depression, we tend to do it under our breath, although it is just as normal as any other physical illness, like a cold or a broken arm.

Unable to cope with life, Esther tries to die by suicide, an attempt which ultimately fails.

The outright commitment to honesty that the novel showcases is a poignant reminder that mental health is real. Not a single sentence in the book skews Plath’s experiences as more dramatic or less — be it her attempt to end her life or the horrifying shock treatments.

“Madness” in The Bell Jar

In the novel, Plath paints a vivid picture of what most people would, even today, refer to as “madness” — a “madness” that arises due to Esther’s feelings of alienation, and the feeling of guilt that the society feeds you with for being different.

I think I understand the “madness” because I have battled depression. I have heard people telling me that it’s a phase and it will pass. But it didn’t.

I have seen indifference and unawareness. I have met people who refuse to learn and unlearn, and people who refuse to educate themselves. 

I too stewed in my own poisonous air until I found the right remedy, the proper medical help that I needed.

When I read The Bell Jar, I was devastated because Esther’s feelings and mine were so similar. We were so much alike that I could look in the mirror and see Esther. Esther was Plath’s alter-ego, and for some painful moments, so was I.

But no, life has been so much easier for me. I did not have to go through (unnecessary) shock treatments. When I read about these treatments, I was terrified. A part of my soul was stuck with Esther inside the room — which seemed no better than a torture chamber to me — and it has been stuck there ever since.

Depression is so tangible, so scary, so appalling, so daunting. The Bell Jar is a chilling reminder of the fact that so many forms of mental illness have persisted for years, yet the battle has only been fought by those who suffered from it. Society is indifferent. It has always been. I do not see a change coming anytime soon.

Esther is me, Esther is you. Esther is all those women trapped between the notions of womanhood that society nourishes, and their own ambitions. 

Esther’s fight was real, and so is mine and so is yours. Do not ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

You are strong, you are different, and that is what makes you, you

So I sat on this slightly elevated part of the terrace and read the last chapter of the book. I knew that the cliffhanger would trouble me for the rest of my life.

I do not know what happened to Esther. Was she fully cured, did she start a new life, did she laugh again, did she sleep well again? I will never know.

All I know is that not long after The Bell Jar was published, Sylvia Plath took her life in her home in England.

The Bell Jar is a novel you must read. It is a novel that every woman must read, and every man must read.

It will disturb you, unsettle you, but you deserve it. We all deserve it because we need to understand Esther’s pain, and we need to change ourselves if we are the part of society that causes such pain to women like Esther.

Featured Image Credits: The Lilly Library

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