Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one of the books I would recommend to anyone (maybe above the age of 13).
When I first got it I expected a female version of The Catcher in the Rye, because I knew it had to do with alienation. But this story is completely the opposite. Holden Caulfield is a cynical teenager fighting to be himself in a world of ‘phonies’ while The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, fights to fit-in and to meet everyone’s expectations. This is honestly the most realistic coming-of-age story I have read.
Esther seems to have it all, she’s talented, smart, successful and apparently wins every scholarship and prize she applies for. But she gradually notices that she has no interest in any of that. Or in anything at all, even though she tries.
I think those who have dealt with depression will recognize Esther’s feelings and understand her subsequent reactions. She slowly starts to recognize them herself, describing them as a bell jar over her head, keeping her from breathing fresh air.
The prose in this book is beautiful and sometimes poetic. Esther’s thoughts are relatable for anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by society’s expectations. This is not just about being a woman, or growing up in the early 60’s, it’s about the pressure of being raised to be successful, and finding oneself wondering Why.
Esther’s downward spiral starts this way, and it doesn’t stop until her own reasoning conduces her to plan her suicide.
This novel offers a great opportunity to enter the mind of someone dealing with a mental illness. And that’s why I think everyone should read it, either to understand how our friends or relatives might be feeling or to have the chance to read in someone else’s words what we might be experiencing.
I didn’t want to be caught in the meme of trigger warnings, but I truly recommend you approach the book with caution, as it might indeed trigger people dealing with depression.
I found myself enjoying the first few chapters but experiencing a feeling of dread towards the middle. Getting in the mind of a disturbed narrator is not an easy task, especially because the reader might start to think all that insanity makes sense. Good thing this is a short read. The paperback is under 250 pages and the prose is light enough to feel modern and easy to understand.
I just chose to read it in small doses and talk to someone after reading, that way I could discuss Esther’s feelings and how they related (or not) to mine.
By the end I was glad I kept reading it and would definitely re-read it in the future. This is one of those stories that will stay with me.
What are your thoughts on this book? Have you read something similar? I would love more recommendations 🙂
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