Good Old Books: The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

In this feature, we offer up some great book recommendations—but not from the current bestseller list. Instead, we offer up oldie-but-goodies; some will be well-known classics, others not so much. But chances are you can find them in a second-hand store or at the library, and who doesn’t love the smell and feel of a good old book?

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As an avid reader and a feminist, I’m pretty embarrassed to say that I only just read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, long considered a classic, must-read story and if not a feminist novel, a novel with definite feminist undertones. I’m not sure what kept me from it for so long, but I’m glad I finally got around to it.

This is one case where the story of the author is perhaps even more provocative than the novel—Plath, an extraordinarily talented poet and short story writer, ended her own life a few weeks after the The Bell Jar (a story about depression and attempted suicide) was published. The tragedy of her death only serves to deepen the realism and intensity of her story, which is billed as “semi-biographical.” Married to a fellow poet and mother of two children, she was 30 years old when she died.

The story, set in the ‘60s,  is about a young, talented writer who gains a summer internship at a big magazine in New York, but goes on to describe her descent into depression and its resulting effect on her relationships, self-image, and ultimately, willingness to live. What I found most interesting was how much time was dedicated to her “recovery,” her time spent in various mental hospitals and the treatments she endures such as insulin shots and shock therapy. The end is relatively open, and I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it, but what I appreciated was its realism: it wasn’t all dread and gloom and titillating death, but nor was it an easy, open-and-close case of a girl who was sad becoming happy again. Her so-called recovery from depression isn’t so much a newfound appreciation for life, but simply her own personal “bell jar” being lifted from her, lessening the invisible pressure and claustrophobia of her own life.

Plath’s story is sad, and a little scary, but vivid and real and engaging. I like to believe this novel would be just as famous regardless of the author’s personal decisions. This is a book for women, for sure, and women who’ve dealt with depression, but it’s really a book for anyone: the struggles of dealing with the sometimes endless fear and uncertainty of life is something that all of us can relate to on some level.

 

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